The FBI’s Most Wanted: New Recruits

The crime-fighting organization—much like everyone else—is struggling to find top talent.

On the current hit TV show FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a full team of special agents and analysts to fight crime and terrorism. But in real life, the FBI is worried that it may be running out of recruits.

The glamorous crime-fighting organization has seen a steep slump in applicants to its training program, from more than 50,000 a decade ago to roughly 10,000 now. The FBI, often depicted in fiction as one of the coolest places to work, has started running advertising campaigns targeting women, minorities, business executives, teachers, and other groups in a bid to boost recruiting.

Reasons for the decline run the gamut, from politics and leadership turnover to strict eligibility requirements and the inherent danger of being an agent. Scott Macfarlane, vice president of client development with Korn Ferry, says the bureau’s hiring practices are also impacting recruiting. FBI agents are required to be drug-free, and the pay is considerably lower than private sector jobs. “Things such as the legalization of marijuana in several states and student debt issues are real structural problems that increasingly limit the potential talent pool,” says Macfarlane.

It wasn’t always this way for the FBI. In 2001, after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC, the bureau experienced a surge in applications. A decade earlier, after the release of The Silence of the Lambs, the Oscar-winning movie about a convicted killer cannibal who helps a female FBI agent track down a serial killer, females applying to be agents soared. According to Melissa Swift, senior client partner and leader of Korn Ferry’s Digital Advisory practice in North America, one of the main factors that attracts people to atypical jobs is purpose. She says that after 9/11, “the FBI’s purpose was so incredibly clear” that it attracted people without much effort, for instance.

Swift says it is critical for organizations, both public and private, to understand how they are perceived by potential recruits and realize that the perception can change over time. “How organizations market themselves as employers is sometimes a lot different than what people actually think,” says Swift.

Not unlike other organizations battling for talent, the FBI has taken measures to attract a larger and wider pool of potential agents. In addition to targeted ad campaigns, the bureau has also provided training to help candidates meet fitness requirements and relaxed other requirements such as years of work experience. A tight labor market, low unemployment, and the need for properly skilled talent is prompting organizations of all stripes to evaluate other ways to assess capabilities that are more in line with today’s market conditions. Experience, for instance, can be tested during the interview process. To be sure, Macfarlane says, assessment tools like those offered by Korn Ferry are a better predictor of fit and potential than a resume anyway.

“More broadly, we are seeing a trend in the private sector to open the aperture for sourcing talent to improve quality and diversity,” he says. “It’s not just about getting to a larger talent pool, it’s recognition that old modes of sourcing are also a limiting factor.”