The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is a high-profile branch of the Department of Homeland Security. Travelers in U.S. airports, bus terminals and rail stations depend on the TSA’s front-line workforce, made up of transportation security officers, to keep them safe when traveling.

Transportation security officers play a vital role in the security of our nation’s transportation infrastructure, and ensuring freedom of movement for people and commerce. They are committed to the mission of homeland security, and their work is critical to the fight against terrorism.

The skills needed to succeed as a transportation security officer can be obtained by enrolling in a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice degree program, along with specialized homeland security training.

Transportation Security Officer Job Description

Transportation security officers, also known as TSOs, are primarily responsible for security at airports, large and small. They may work directly with the public, conducting pre-boarding screening of passengers and their carry-on items, or they may work behind the scenes, screening luggage for prohibited items such as flares, loaded firearms, explosives, knives and scissors.

Working on a team, a transportation security officer’s main responsibility is screening passengers, baggage and cargo through X-ray machines and pat-downs, to comply with TSA regulations. The goal of these screening procedures is to prevent dangerous objects from being transported onto the means of transportation.

Airports, terminal and stations are busy places; noise, distractions and a fast pace are part of the job. In addition, TSOs are expected to confront suspicious persons, work with upset or angry travelers, and keep their composure in stressful conditions.

Physical Security Specialist Job Duties

Each day working as a transportation security officer is different from the last. Specific job tasks typically include:

  • Facilitating orderly and efficient processing of passengers through checkpoints
  • Reporting vulnerable areas to supervisors
  • Operating screening equipment to identify prohibited objects on passengers, baggage or cargo
  • Checking passenger boarding documents and identification to ensure validity
  • Performing hand-wand and pat-down passenger searches
  • Interacting with the public, offering assistance and answering questions
  • Controlling entry and exit points in airport terminals
  • Maintaining focus and awareness to ensure effective decision-making in both crisis and routine situations
  • Confiscating dangerous or hazardous items found during screening procedures

In addition, transportation security officers are responsible for closing down appropriate areas during security breaches and restoring access when security has been restored.  

Transportation Security Officer Career Outlook

Once a candidate is hired as a transportation security officer, opportunities for career growth include advancing to positions such as lead TSO, supervisor or manager. Because the TSA is part of the Department of Homeland Security, opportunities exist in that department, as well.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that employment for security guards in general is projected to grow 19% through 2020, so the transportation security officer job outlook may also be considered positive. Prospective students are encouraged to conduct their own research, as job availability will vary according to geographical region, education, experience and other factors.

Potential Salary for Transportation Security Officers

According to information published by the BLS in May 2012, the median annual salary for transportation security screeners was $36,850. The highest 10% earned around $44,650 per year, while the lowest 10% brought home approximately $29,740 annually. Prospective students are encouraged to conduct their own research, as potential salaries will vary according to geographical region, education, experience and other factors.

Education and Training for Transportation Security Officers

To qualify for a transportation security officer job, a candidate must have at least a high school diploma or equivalent, and be proficient in the English language. In addition, candidates must pass a series of assessment tests to determine decision-making skills and aptitude to work on teams and with the general public. A medical evaluation and drug screening, as well as a background investigation, will also be conducted. Candidates who pass all screening and assessment tests are placed into three categories: “best qualified,” “highly qualified” or “qualified.”

While not required, the specialized knowledge obtained through advanced education, such as a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field, could enable candidates to achieve a higher level of performance on the TSA’s aptitude tests.

A bachelor of arts in criminal justice program will offer coursework in criminology, correctional systems, ethics, law, police organizations and administration, law and psychology, and homeland security and terrorism. Additional courses in social sciences and the humanities provide a well-rounded education would serve you well in a TSO career.

The TSA requires transportation security officers to undergo on-the-job and classroom training, as well as initial certification testing. Officers are also required to maintain certification and fitness; therefore, they are subject to recurrent and specialized homeland security training and recertification tests, and randomly administered drug-screening tests.

In addition to the required training, successful transportation security officers will possess the following attributes:

  • Strong communication skills
  • Good judgment and problem-solving ability
  • Diversity awareness, understanding and respect for cultural differences
  • Excellent attention to detail
  • Leadership skills
  • The ability to focus on the task at hand

Build a Career in Service to Your Country

Becoming a transportation security officer is a great way to begin a career with the Department of Homeland Security. As the threat of violence and terrorism at our nation’s airports continues, these professionals are on the front lines of keeping travelers safe and facilities secure. Starting with a degree in criminal justice can help give you the skills you’ll need to succeed and make a lasting impact in service to your country.

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