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Recruiters go “full throttle” to attract correctional officers for agency

Recruiter handing card to woman
TDCJ recruiter Paul Hughes hands a prospective employee a wallet card listing the basic eligiblity requirements for working as a correctional officer as well as the salary and benefits that come with the job.
Photos by David Nunnelee
With a horde of people strolling shoulder-to-shoulder between booths lined up one side of the room and down the other, it looks and feels a lot like a carnival midway. But this isn’t a county fair. It’s a job fair on a military base in Killeen where TDCJ is in the middle of the midway madness.

The Army Career & Alumni Program Center Job Fair at Fort Hood is staged inside the Officers’ Club twice a year. It’s a really big show, with more than 130 public and private employers contending to lure the more than 2,000 people that typically attend each fair to their booths. Retailers like Wal-Mart and Target are here as are aerospace companies, private security firms, defense contractors and police departments from as far away as Atlanta, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina. For TDCJ, it’s a great place to showcase the agency for the men and women who might be wrapping up their military careers and recruit them and others to work as correctional officers.

“The military-based job fairs tend to be some of the best attended and we have the type of applicant that’s seeking employment with our agency,” said TDCJ Recruiting Administrator Jan Thornton.

Working the semi-annual fair for TDCJ in late January were Paul Hughes and Hugh Robb, a 25-year veteran of the recruiting business. He and Hughes first set up their portable display board on a table in a corner of a room where the foot traffic would prove heavy. They then set out promotional and informational materials that included complimentary bluebonnet seed packets, brochures, scratch pads bearing the “Be a Correctional Officer” slogan, and wallet cards listing the basic eligibility criteria for correctional officers along with the salary and benefits that come with the job. By the end of the day, they had talked to more than 400 prospective employees, including 45-year-old Norma Hogan, who after more than 21 years of service had recently retired from the Army and was working for the Killeen Fire Department as a clerk.

“It’s more structured and I’m more of a structure person,” Hogan said about her interest in possibly joining TDCJ. “I like to know where I’m going, how to do it, and the time frame that it has to be done, so something like this would really be something I’d be looking for in a job field. With my military background and the training (TDCJ) offers, this is something that would be great to do.”

Michelle Pitt, a 21-year-old military police officer about to be discharged from the Army, said she planned to pursue a career in either corrections or law enforcement.

“I have had friends do it and I’ve talked to National Guardsmen and Army Reservists who were correctional officers and they said that it was an excellent job,” she said. “I really don’t know a lot about TDCJ but when I see corrections I automatically want information about it because when my unit went to Iraq we worked a lot with prisoners of war.”

Robb said that while people of all walks of life can make for good correctional officers, former soldiers are especially attractive to the agency because they bring with them maturity and a familiarity of working within a regulated environment with a defined chain of command.

“Those people transition right into the rules, regulations, policies and procedures about as good as you can ask for,” he said.

“I don’t see it as a burden, I see it as a challenge,” Thornton said about the task of recruiting enough officers to make up the shortfall. “But I also see it as a responsibility because I’m committed to doing the best we can for the agency, which in turn benefits the citizens of Texas.”

Recruiting efforts last fiscal year resulted in the hiring of more than 6,000 correctional officers, including 1,200 former TDCJ security employees.

recruiters talking to prospective applicants in front of TDCJ booth
TDCJ recruiters Paul Hughes, far left, and Hugh Robb talk with prospective job applicants during the Army Career & Alumni Program Job Fair held at Fort Hood in Killeen in late January.
Seven recruiters are based in Huntsville while another covers the Panhandle region out of Plainview. They attended 99 job fairs, and another 27 correctional officer hiring seminars were conducted in areas where staffing needs are greatest. They include Amarillo, Huntsville, Palestine, Beeville, and Kenedy. Meanwhile, TDCJ facilities in South Texas, as well as those in the western, eastern and far northeastern areas of the state tend to stay well staffed.

“In many areas of the state we don’t have a recruiting problem,” said Employment Section Director Ken Johnson. “We have a pool of correctional officer applicants in some parts of the state made up of people who don’t want to go anywhere else. And generally speaking, there’s not a recruiting problem for non-correctional positions.”

At the Killeen job fair, James Anderson, an unemployed 34-year-old Houston resident, stopped by TDCJ’s booth to see if the agency had any correctional officer positions open in Austin where he planned to move soon.

“I wouldn’t mind working as a correctional officer,” he said. “The only thing about it is relocation. I know they won’t pay for relocation so if they don’t have anything in Austin, I’m not going to travel to Huntsville and back to work every day.”

Hiring seminars differ from job fairs in that they are advertised and staged by TDCJ to target specific communities. They are scheduled three or four times a month in areas of critical need and attended by seasoned correctional officers or security administrators from surrounding units. Thornton said between 20 and 25 prospective employees attend the seminars on average. One in Palestine recently attracted more than 50 people.

“We hold them for whoever shows up because anyone is a potential candidate for us,” Thornton said. “It is more focused on areas where we have a critical need for applicants. Our goal is to have a pool of applicants to assign to those areas. The reality is that we’re hiring people in areas where we need them as fast as we can get them processed.”

The improving state of the economy over the past few years has contributed to the current correctional officer shortage, Johnson and others say. Historically, the better the jobs picture has been in the private sector, the harder it has been for the public sector to attract and retain employees. Low statewide unemployment, in other words, usually means higher attrition rates for TDCJ and other state agencies. At the height of TDCJ’s correctional officer shortage four years ago, for example, the statewide jobless rate stood just above 4 percent.

“When opportunities are good elsewhere, there is a contingent of people who see that as the grass being greener so they’d rather be doing that,” Thornton said. “If the unemployment rate is higher, then there are just more people looking toward us.”

Selling points for the agency includes the likelihood of stable employment and attractive benefits that include state-paid health insurance coverage and retirement. Thornton said attracting candidates to TDCJ often has as much to do with reprogramming them as it does with recruiting them. For some, the only thing they may know about working in a prison is what they see dramatized on television or at the movies.

“I don’t tell them that it’s perfectly safe or anything,” said Hughes, a TDCJ recruiter for nearly five years. “Obviously a (prison) environment has a certain degree of danger in it, but you stress the education and the training they receive. And if you do that you’ll go to work and come home every night like you’re supposed to.”

Robb often tells job seekers that working in a prison is safer than working in or shopping at a convenience store late at night when hidden dangers might be lurking.

“We let them know quick that the inmates do not have control of the prison,” he said. “We have control of the prison.”

Beatriz Molina, who was considering a career with TDCJ following her discharge from Army after five years, said she’d been to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and didn’t find the environment daunting.

“No, it doesn’t scare me all,” said the 24-year-old from Houston. “I’m a paralegal so I deal with the criminal justice system all the time.”

The agency’s recruiting efforts are assisted by the Texas Workforce Commission, which not only refers potential applicants but also allows recruiters use of its facilities for on-site screening. Another source the agency taps is its existing work force through the Executive Director’s Recruiting Award program. Initiated in July 1999, the program offers a certificate signed by the executive director and a $100 U.S. Savings Bond to employees who recruit a correctional officer for the agency. Since its start, more than 3,500 officers have been hired through the program and one employee has already received $2,300 in savings bonds.

“We’re always looking for new ideas amongst ourselves and from the employees of the agency,” Thornton said. “We encourage the employees to be part of our recruiting effort.”
Robb said he and his fellow recruiters are on the road recruiting or processing applicants at least two weeks each month.

“We go at it full throttle,” he said. “We screen every qualified applicant that walks through the door.”

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