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BELTSVILLE, Maryland — As a kid, Erica Remshard had big dreams of what she might be when she grew up.
Legos and Hot Wheels were her go-to toys, and she loved playing sports outdoors. The Ohio native thought she'd become either a detective or a professional athlete.
At 28, she's found a career that, in a way, fulfills both of those aspirations. Remshard is a United States Secret Service special agent trainee, set to graduate from its academy this December. The agency has a unique integrated mission of protection and investigations, and the job requires applicants to be in peak physical condition.
"I was never a law enforcement officer, but wanted to learn more about it from watching TV shows growing up, and I wanted to use my prior experience as an investigator," said Remshard, previously a contract cyberthreat analyst for the government. "The Secret Service is a law enforcement officer's elite program in cybercrimes."
The 151-year-old agency is also on a mission to hire nearly 1,200 employees through the end of 2017 — from special agents, to its uniformed division officers, to even those in administrative, professional and technical roles. Uniformed division officers are stationed in Washington, while special agents have the potential to be deployed globally, witnessing history protecting politicians and dignitaries. And salaries within the agency are competitive, ranging from $45,000 to nearly $100,000 per year.
The increased hiring is due, in part, to presidential campaigns, and a new commander-in-chief and first family on the way in January. That means a new detail for what will then be former President Barack Obama.
More employees are also becoming eligible to retire. Currently 7 percent of service agents and 10 percent of uniformed division employees are up for retirement. More broadly on turnover, including retirements, the Secret Service is in a period of "higher attrition" with about 7 percent turnover projected for the 2016 fiscal year, up from an average of 5 percent in the past few years.
"We are looking for individuals of a very high caliber with integrity, and a great deal of responsibility," said Renee Triplett, assistant director for human resources for the Secret Service. "We are looking for those who can navigate the physical rigors of our training, because the job is a very physical position. We need someone who is a self-starter, a self-initiator, ... just a high quality individual."
The typical hiring process from application to acceptance into training is six to eight months. However, the agency is currently hiring more aggressively, utilizing an accelerated process called ELAC, or an entry-level assessment center, which will be in cities around the country to speed up the process to four to five months.
Historically, the Secret Service has four to eight classes for its special agent and uniformed divisions, respectively, each year. However, that too, has been ramped up this year when there will be approximately 13 special agent and uniformed classes each.
The number of applicants has also increased in recent years for both divisions, with more than 22,000 applications for 2016. At most, 12 percent will advance to the background check portion of the process. Beyond background checks, there are also polygraphs and drug screenings.
Those who make the cut will be trained for six months at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Georgia, and the Secret Service training facility here in Beltsville. Trainees are put through a myriad of challenges beyond the traditional classroom — from firearms instruction and active shooter and combat drills on a virtual simulator, to evasive driving techniques. There's also daily physical training — Crossfit-style workouts to ensure trainees can handle defense tactics that will be employed in the field protecting dignitaries and politicians.
"The academy is very physical and rigorous," Triplett said. "There's a tremendous amount of running involved, a tremendous amount of physical altercations that you're going to have during exercises. [Trainees] should not be afraid of technology — as an agency we are trying to keep up with the trends of terrorism and the cyberworld. We need people who are comfortable navigating that language."
Less than a quarter of the entire agency is female, something the Secret Service is also looking to increase with more trainees like Remshard. But she's had no trouble keeping up. In fact, the former Division 1 softball player and competitive Crossfit athlete has shattered a prior record for the most pullups a female trainee had done in the academy, with 22.
"I know they hold everyone to high P.T. standards, and I would be able to use my prior competitions to be strong in fitness," Remshard said. "I think the guys are a little intimidated by me — I have a strong fitness background, more than some of them."
But aside from surviving the challenging training regimen, Triplett said what matters most is that trainees have a desire to serve.
"You have to be flexible and be able to adjust at a moment's notice," she said. "The best laid plans always go awry, and an individual has to have flexibility built into their mindset."