It Is A High Stress Job


I can’t say that I was purposefully eavesdropping, but I did overhear a portion of a phone conversation. I was simply minding my own business and working on my computer at the airport while waiting for my flight. The person next to me was on the telephone and I overheard enough of his conversation to know that he and I have something in common. He made enough references to case managers, program directors and foster care redesign that I suspected he was a DFPS caseworker.


When he subsequently ended his telephone conversation, I spoke to him. Apologetically, I said: “I really didn’t purposefully intend to overhear your telephone conversation, but I heard enough that I suspect you work for children’s protective services. He looked puzzled and responded: “No I don’t.”


Did I mention that I don’t always get it right? I’m sure that now I was the one with a puzzled look on my face. I explained, “I’m sorry. I heard the word case manager, program director and foster care redesign and I made an assumption that you were a child welfare worker”. He smiled and said, “Oh, I get it. I’m not a child welfare worker. I’m a foster parent.”


I explained that I’m an old child welfare worker and that his conversation had led me to mistakenly assign him that role. I don’t think it was his intent to be rude, but he immediately asked: “So are you retired now?” I was a little taken back by his assumption, but I managed a less than genuine laugh and said: “Old child welfare workers never retire. They are child welfare workers until they die.”


As it turns out, the young man has two adolescent age boys placed in his home. He said: “Being a foster parent is not easy. It really is hard work”. He went on to tell me that he has already adopted one of the two boys in his care and is currently waiting to consummate the adoption of the second foster child. In fact, he was at “Gate 7”to meet the second foster child who was arriving on the plane I would subsequently be boarding.


The guy actually works as a gate agent for one of the airlines. That explained how he was able to meet his soon-to-be adoptive son at the gate. He said, “My foster son is fourteen years old. All he can talk about is one day graduating from high school and joining the military. While I’d much prefer he didn’t, I am encouraging him to follow his dreams. If that’s what he wants to do, I’ll support him all the way”.


I opted not to tell him that my son served twenty years in the U.S. Marine Corps and was offered two tours of duty in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. It is a great way to see parts of the world that you wouldn’t normally want to visit and spends months in environments that could be deadly, but I figured he already had that part figured out or he’d see a military career differently.


As we talked, I mentioned that one of the agencies where I work is STARRY in Round Rock. STARRY is a licensed child placing agencies providing both foster care and adoptive services. We also provide counseling services for at risk children and their families in 32 counties across Texas. He said, “I’m familiar with STARRY. You have offices in both Temple and Killeen. They do incredible work. I’ve attended some of the training they provided and it was helpful”. So as it turned out, he and I did have something in common after-all.


I watched him as he went to greet his foster son when he arrived at the gate. They exchanged hugs and walked together toward the exit. I had the thought, “That fourteen year is a lucky kid”. I sensed that his soon-to-be adoptive dad is committed to the process. He is right, “It isn’t easy to be a foster parent.”


As the time to board my flight approached, I got in line. When you are number “A-60” it isn’t difficult to figure out where in the A-group you fall. How does last chair sound? In fact, I jokingly mentioned to the woman standing in front of me that A-60 isn’t a lot better than the B-group. As I did, I had the thought that true to my word, I was attempting to initiate conversation with a host of folks. You never quite know when a bloggable moment is around the next “hello”. She smiled and said: “My number is C-5”. That acknowledgement made A-60 sound near the front of the line.


When I boarded the plane, I took a window seat midway down on my left. The prematurely gray haired man in the aisle seat appeared at least two decades younger than me and was intently focused on the game of Solitaire he was playing on his iPad. I had the passing thought, “I hope it never comes to that!” How badly do you have to want to win to play against yourself? Discovering that the plane was almost boarded, I breathed a momentarily sigh of relief with the thought that no one was going to occupy the middle seat. As it turned out, a passenger did. The person who took the middle seat was the lady with the boarding number “C-5”.


She said, “I guess when you’re in the C-boarding group, you sit in the middle seat”. I replied: “The C-boarding group worked as well for you as A-60 worked for me. We are both seated on the same row.”


She turned out to be a delightful lady. I asked what was taking her to Kansas City and she replied, “My son just moved there and I’m going to help him look for an apartment.” Literally, he just moved there. Last week, he was finishing up his classes in the Air Traffic Controller Academy in Oklahoma City. It is a post-college graduation academy where the regime is strict and the goal is landing a job with the FAA as an air-traffic control specialist.


Interestingly, like the military, there is an entry-level age requirement. To become an air traffic controller, you must be under the age of 31. The whole issue of governmental age-discrimination in hiring doesn’t set well with me, but that is another day’s blog topic. While her son was in the academy, he shared housing with two other like-minded students who wanted to be air traffic control specialists. It is a six months intense program with strict attendance requirements. According to his mom, if you are tardy more than twice, you are eliminated from the program. Of course, the academy provides bus transportation for students and if you were “on the bus” and late because of traffic, it didn’t count against you. If you were in a personal vehicle and late, you might as well pack you bags if that happened more than twice. Reportedly, her son always took the academy bus. If you missed a day for illness, you’d better have a doctor’s excuse. If you missed more than a day, you were out regardless.


The thing I found fascinating is that the FAA assigns a service location for employees. It is a take-it or leave-it option, but if you want a career in air traffic control, you don’t have a choice. You ride for the brand and you do it their way. Reportedly, her son could anticipate being assigned in Kansas City for a two-year period before being assigned elsewhere.


His assigned air-traffic controller responsibility was performing the duties of an “en-router”. I wasn’t familiar with the term. According to his mom, Her son is not actually located in an air-traffic control tower. In fact, he is in a distraction free environment located inside a basement. His assigned role is to begin tracking aircraft when they are within 7 miles of the tower. I’m not sure at what point his responsibility ceases and the folks in the tower assume responsibility.


Reportedly the new folks assigned to work in the basement make more money than the new folks assigned in the tower. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was out of my mouth before I realized what I was saying. I commented, “The folks in the tower have a better view”. Out of interest, I subsequently did a Google search and determined that the medium income for air traffic controllers was $127, 805 in 2016.


I was a little shocked by the salary level. Of course, I recognize that it is a high-stress job and lives depend on getting it right. At the same time, the same could be said about a child protective services worker. Their annual rate of pay in Texas just got raised from the low $30s to $40s. Of course, when I started, my income was $6,000 a year, but that was a very long time ago. They also don’t have a maximum age requirement for entry-level positions.


The mother was excited about helping her son look for an apartment. She said he has never lived on his own before. The kind folks who assigned him to work in Kansas City also provided him a list of apartments. She and her son had appointments to look at eight different apartments yesterday afternoon. What an exciting time in her son’s life.


The mom said, “My other son is a chef. She then provided me the name of the prestigious hotel where he works. She said his wife is also a chef, but her specialty is deserts. The mom expressed delight that she can now fly and eat well. I responded, “That is a pretty sweet deal.”


All My Best!



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