The popular television show Border Patrol has created an unrealistic expectation about the job of Customs officers, says the chief executive of the border protection agency.

A Weekend Herald investigation can reveal morale in Customs has plummeted in recent years with nearly one-third of staff "disengaged" from their work, according to a leaked copy of the most recent employment survey.

More than 50 senior staff took voluntary redundancy in a sweeping restructure and the number of permanent operational staff has fallen from 935 to 810, while a further 138 job vacancies remain unfilled.

Insiders at Customs say having fewer frontline staff has increased the pressure on the "thin blue line" at the Auckland International Airport and led to more resignations.

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Under questioning at a recent select committee hearing at Parliament, Customs chief executive Carolyn Tremain conceded there was a high staff turnover at the Auckland airport. "A lot of that's about working in a demanding environment where you have wave after wave of aircraft passengers come into the terminal.

"Some people don't particularly like the nature of the terminal and the shift work, and shift work comes out on some of the reasons why people leave."

Ms Tremain put the "expectation gap" down to the drama and excitement portrayed on television.

"We get a lot of people apply to come and work at Customs and their view on what the job is like is based on what they see on Border Patrol," she told the Weekend Herald.

"Border Patrol makes it look like you find something [illegal] on every passenger, which of course isn't the reality."

However, a leaked copy of the most recent Customs' staff survey suggest the problems are more widespread. Just 11.2 per cent of employees were "engaged" in their work last year - down from 19.7 per cent two years earlier - compared with 20 per cent of all public servants and 26 per cent of police.

In contrast, 31.3 per cent of Customs staff were "disengaged" - up from 21.2 per cent in 2012 - compared with 19.6 per cent across the state service sector last year.

The engagement scores for Customs fell in nearly every category compared with 2013 and were also below the state sector benchmark. Only 42.9 per cent of staff expressed confidence in the leadership - a drop of 10.8 per cent from the previous year and 16.2 per cent less than the state service benchmark.

Poor pay was singled out as a problem and State Service Commission figures obtained by the Weekend Herald show Customs had a median income of $61,000 - the lowest of any public sector organisation.

Ms Tremain said the pay benchmark did not include a component which lifted Customs off the bottom of the table, but agreed remuneration was an issue for staff, particularly in Auckland and Christchurch.

Customs is looking at how the pay scale is calculated but Ms Tremain said any changes had to be part of renegotiations of the collective employment agreement.

She said remuneration was the main issue behind the falling "engagement" figures in the staff survey, but Customs management was making a greater effort to spend time with frontline staff to share the future direction of the organisation.

Ms Tremain also pointed out more positive aspects of the survey which showed staff were proud to work at Customs (73 per cent), believed colleagues act with integrity (78 per cent) and their immediate boss behaves consistently with values of organisation (77 per cent).

"I can find good things and things that we're working on. "

Shearer labels $104m IT project 'a dog'

Customs officers use trained dogs such as Kahn to sniff out bombs. Photo / Supplied
Customs officers use trained dogs such as Kahn to sniff out bombs. Photo / Supplied

Dogs sniffing out smuggled drugs and cash are the stars of Border Patrol but Labour MP David Shearer spoke of another "dog" at Customs - a major IT project three years late and nearly $30 million over budget.

The first stage of the Joint Border Management System (JBMS) - merging the computer systems of Customs and the Ministry for Primary Industries - was supposed to be finished by the end of 2012 at a cost of $75.9 million.

The trade aspect of the system is working, after three delays, but the total bill is now $104.1 million. However, the promised risk and intelligence tools for profiling of people, goods and craft crossing the border are still not in place. They are now expected to go "live" at the beginning of next year.

"Sounds like a dog to me, to be quite frank with you," Shearer said at a select committee hearing this month.

Robert Lake, deputy comptroller at Customs, took issue with "dog" description.

"We have been quite conservative and diligent ... so yes, it has taken longer and it has cost more, but we've maintained that integrity of the border system."