Despite the lure of higher paying jobs in a strong economy and some harsh criticism from President Donald Trump, the number of people applying to be FBI special agents is up sharply, surpassing the bureau's annual recruiting goal.
And the latest survey of FBI employees shows job satisfaction up over last year, a sign that morale is rebounding after the firing of James Comey as director.
With more than a month remaining in the current fiscal year, the FBI told NBC News it had received 32,000 applications, nearly three times more than the 11,500 it received all of the previous year. This year's figure was also well beyond the bureau's recruiting goal of 16,000 applicants — to be winnowed down to 900 special agents.
The numbers show that interest in joining the FBI has come roaring back after a decline in applications in the past three years. And among current employees, results from the FBI's annual "climate survey" show upticks in support for the FBI's leadership and mission this year compared to 2018.
Among the last internal results, more employees in FBI field offices said they were proud to work for the FBI, believe in its mission, and would recommend it as a good place to work. Though the gains were small, they reversed the drops in those categories from 2017 to 2018.
The number of employees who said they had a high level of respect for the FBI's senior executives was up 6 percent this year.
FBI Director Chris Wray has said the bureau's employees remain inspired. "Rumors about damage to our morale or brand are grievously overstated," he told the Council on Foreign Relations in April. "We're not focused on the rhetoric. We're focused on the work, who we do it with, and who we do it for."
The face of the FBI's agent force is changing, too, moving away from the stereotypical white male military veteran or former accountant with a crew cut. In the most recent Basic Field Training Courses for new agents at the FBI Academy, 31 percent of the students were women and 25 percent were from minority groups, showing progress in the bureau's efforts to diversify, the FBI said.
A class action lawsuit filed in May claimed the FBI discriminated against women at the training academy by judging them more harshly than their male counterparts. Some applicants said they were subjected to sexual harassment.
But Wray told a Senate hearing in July that the FBI is "making a lot of progress" by setting gender diversity recruiting targets for every field office. As for training, "we are taking a look at how things are working down at the academy."
A Twitter campaign launched last year, #UnexpectedAgent, is part of a $1.2 million campaign to urge a broader spectrum of people to consider becoming agents.
"We have people who are pharmaceutical sales specialists," said Kisha Winston, chief of the FBI's recruitment and sourcing unit. "We had a ballerina. We have professional athletes. We have gold medal Olympians. We have school teachers. We have social workers."
The FBI liked the background of Russ, a former nuclear engineer who is a new agent in the Baltimore field office. (To preserve their ability to work undercover, last names have been withheld.) "Part of the investigative process is solving the puzzle. There's more than one way to solve the puzzle," he said.
With long hair down to his shirt collar, he's a departure from the image of the typical G-man. "The fact that you may be a nonconformist may make you a better candidate over somebody who has only done certain things or only thought certain ways in their life," Russ said.
The appeal of doing something different also appealed to Sarah, another new agent in Baltimore. Before earning her badge, she helped run a power plant. "It wasn't a bad job," she said, adding that she just "wasn't excited to go to work every day. It wasn't the right fit for me."
So she decided to pursue a career in the FBI, as her father did. "You're not just working for yourself. You're not working because you want to get rich. You're working to make the world a better place."