Public Forum

08/01/2007
By Used with permission from the Boston Globe. By Hal Salzman and Bert Useem

Foolproof security? No such thing, of course. Calls to add more technology and militarize our airways may have merit, but we need to consider the problems inherent in any security system - and this leads us to work force and organizational issues.

The move to federalize the security work force will address many problems, but by itself will not enhance the skills and effectiveness of the security work force. These are jobs that, whatever their pay, are not going to attract and retain workers who will achieve police-force-level skills. The security work force needs to be restructured, and the responsibility for security needs to be diffused throughout the airport, to include the least-skilled workers, such as cleaners and other ground personnel, who are often those with the most access to airplanes. Achieving high levels of security requires a more comprehensive and integrated approach to work force enhancement.

Apparently, the terrorists boarded the plane at Logan International Airport without violating the rules: no explosives, no guns, just small knives allowed under the policy at the time and, importantly, no concern for their own safety, only for their mission. Banning all knives would have stopped them from bringing their own, but as prisons teach us, human ingenuity can find ways to fashion shanks from nearly any material.

Criminals, and especially criminal terrorists, learn from our past efforts to thwart them. Of course, we should work to plug all the known or anticipated holes. But relying on technology and procedural solutions will lull us into a false sense of security. The need is to create a learning organization, one that anticipates new forms of circumvention and resistance. The rub in creating a learning organization is to energize airport security workers, to break the back of inattentiveness that comes from boredom and high job turnover. This is achievable.

Most important is to restructure airport security jobs. The lowest-level jobs, especially for ground crews and routine security personnel, must be integrated into the airport organization. This involves more than higher salaries or expensive recruiting campaigns. Instead, management must reorient the organizational culture.The Sept. 11 tragedy will heighten awareness for a while, but that will fade. The most important and enduring change will be to create job ladders and a career system so that workers come to see that their own interests and the airport's are one and the same. Workers who identify with the organization and carry out their duties with diligence are rewarded with better and better positions. Airport security becomes part of a career, not just a job. This also creates social cohesion, which counters attempts at infiltration and integrates workers who may be culturally and socially disaffected.

Terrorists attack the line of least expectation and greatest vulnerability. That is why we need a learning organization, to anticipate new lines of attack, drawing also on the experience of those on the front lines. A learning organization, with career ladders, would narrow the opportunities for things to go wrong. Improved security would be the primary benefit, but safety and other areas of performance also would go up.

Hal Salzman is senior research scientist at the Center for Industrial Competitiveness, University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Bert Useem is professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico.

This story ran on page D4 of the Boston Globe on 9/25/2001.