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On the Trail of the Security-Cleared Employee

January 30, 2004
Related Topics: Workplace Violence, Candidate Sourcing, Safety and Workplace Violence, Staffing Management
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Every single day, Booz Allen Hamilton, based in McLean, Virginia, finds itself in the alarming position of losing money. The strategy and technology consultancy logged $2.2 billion in sales in fiscal 2003 and employs 13,000 worldwide. It’s watching the dollars slip away because one group of must-have employees is excruciatingly difficult to find: workers with a security clearance issued by the Defense Department.

    Debra Loreilhe serves as recruiting manager in the company’s national security business segment. She says that Booz needs these so-called "cleared" workers for projects that it’s handling for the federal government. The positions range from engineering to clerical. "Demand for these workers far exceeds supply," she says. In fact, of the 500 to 700 positions that the company currently has open for employees with security clearance, some 400 are considered "sold and funded." In other words, Booz needs these employees for projects already under way. The company has boosted its recruiting team for cleared employees by 25 percent simply to try to get those positions filled, Loreilhe says.

Big spending means more demand
    Booz isn’t the only company relentlessly stalking security-cleared employees. As the Defense Department’s budget climbs--President Bush has requested $401.7 billion in discretionary budget authority for fiscal 2005, a 7 percent increase from 2004--Uncle Sam is doling out private-sector contracts like candy on Halloween. With many of these contracts, the work is sensitive, involving homeland security or national defense. When the federal government needs someone to work on the Pentagon computer system, it wants assurance that it’s not letting any bad guys in, explains Bradford Rand, president and CEO of TECHEXPO Top Secret, a division of TECHEXPO USA. The New York City-based firm stages large job fairs for applicants with security clearance.

    It’s no simple matter for a private company to get staff cleared. The process can take years. It also costs contractors anywhere from a couple thousand dollars to more than $20,000, depending on the complexity of the process, such as the number of places the candidate has lived, and the level of clearance. Employees who already have an active clearance are highly valuable to companies like Booz, and also to the IBMs, Ciscos, AT&Ts and Lockheed Martins of the corporate world, which do a lot of business with the federal government.

    Jason Medick, marketing director for online tech recruiter Dice, fields requests from job-seekers and employers alike. Both parties often wonder why it’s so hard to get clearance. "Job-seekers think it’s just another credential they can add to their résumé," he says. Recruiters who are not in the know often think that adding the clearance is a matter of a simple background check.

    In fact, the process is intimate, to say the least. First, the only people who are eligible to apply for security clearance are those who are working in or with the military, with a federal agency, or with a private-sector contractor that requires access to sensitive information. The Defense Security Service (DSS), an agency of the Department of Defense, conducts the investigation, which involves a check into all of a person’s files held by the federal government, including criminal history in every place that a person has ever worked, lived or gone to school. It also includes comprehensive financial checks; interviews with coworkers, employers, personal friends, teachers and neighbors; and a personal interview, which includes questions about family background, past experiences, health, alcohol or drug use, foreign travel and even sexual behavior. (Red flags include bestiality, "swinging" and obscene phone calls. Celibacy, on the other hand, is not considered a threat.)

    There are several levels of security clearance, and that determines the scope and depth of the DSS investigation. Security-clearance categories are based on the damage that leaked information could cause to the nation. The categories range from "confidential," which allows access to information that, if disclosed, would cause measurable damage to national security, through "secret," which allows access to information that could cause serious damage. Secret clearances must be renewed every 10 years. People with access to "top secret" information can come in contact with materials that if leaked could cause "grave" danger, and such clearances must be renewed every five years. Clearance for "SCI" or sensitive compartmented information, allows access to information so sensitive that it is severely restricted. For some levels of security clearance, a polygraph test is required.

Finding the trustworthy
    The in-depth nature of the investigation process ensures that the supply of cleared employees isn’t going to increase anytime soon. And thanks to the high level of demand, most professionals with a clearance are employed, which means that they aren’t exactly eager job-seekers. At one popular site for cleared employees, Intelligencecareers.com, only 2 percent of job-seekers are unemployed. Companies that are pursuing these hot candidates therefore must get creative and cast a wide net, says Jason Averbook, director of global product marketing at PeopleSoft, which sells more human resources software to the government than any other vendor.

    Alex Baxter is managing partner at Transition Assistance Online, a division of Lucas Group. The first place to look, Baxter says, is the only truly deep source of potential employees with security clearance--individuals who are just about to finish their tours of duty with the military and are moving into the private sector. Many people in the military have at least a "confidential" clearance, the basic level, and many more are cleared for access to more sensitive information.

    To be sure, the number of people leaving the military each year is small. Only about 224,000 people left all branches of the military combined in 2000, the latest year for which statistics are available. But what this group lacks in size it makes up for in concentration. Until these future job candidates are discharged, they’re all living on or near military bases. Savvy recruiters are in touch with career offices on military bases, which accept job listings from corporations, and with "transition assistance training programs," which help military personnel to blend back into the civilian world, Baxter says.

    Online job boards have a bad reputation when it comes to recruiting security-cleared candidates, says Baxter. In part this is because many job-seekers without security clearance mistakenly believe that if they at some point passed a background check, they have clearance. And in part it’s because many who do have security clearance are reluctant to post the fact on a job board that anyone can access, says Baxter.

    Averbook says that mainstream job boards such as Monster or HotJobs may represent too wide a net for such a rare credential. A better choice, he says, would be any of the specialty job boards that are directed specifically toward security-cleared individuals, such as Intelligencecareers.com or ClearanceJobs.com, or those that are targeted at former military personnel, like www.gijobs.net or www.stripes.com. Many of these Web sites take the extra step of getting in touch with employers to make sure that they are, in fact, looking to fill a position and are not terrorists trolling for the names of people with security clearance who are out of work. This piece of due diligence can help ease the mind of a jittery security-cleared and -conscious individual.

    In the Washington, D.C., area, which is rife with opportunities for security-cleared individuals, job fairs like TECHEXPO Top Secret that are restricted to potential candidates with an active security clearance are also a handy way to recruit. At the most recent Top Secret event, nearly a third of the candidates who attended received job offers, says Rand.

Paying your own employees
    By far the most effective way to recruit security-cleared employees is to tap that all-important internal employee network, says Loreilhe of Booz Allen Hamilton. About 50 to 60 of the 60 to 65 hires that the company does make each month in the security-cleared arena, she says, come from recommendations from security-cleared professionals on the payroll already. To encourage employees to participate, the company holds regular "cleared campaigns." For example, in December, any employee who had brought in the résumé of a person with at least a "top secret" clearance received $100 per résumé. One go-getter brought in 45 résumés, Loreilhe says. Other promotions have offered heftier incentives for people who are actually hired.

    "Referral networks are the best way to get to the passive job-seeker," Loreilhe explains. In fact, even if applicants’ credentials and experience aren’t quite right, but they have that clearance, Booz is willing to train. Building internal networks also helps with retention, particularly for cleared employees with a military background, who can act as mentors for new employees fresh from the military, she says.

    While Booz is aggressively seeking candidates from the outside, it’s also hedging its bets and getting employees started on the long process of clearance. For example, when it recruits college interns, it starts them in their sophomore year. The company will begin the security-clearance process as soon as it has a start date for the 20 to 25 that work on the national security team, says Loreilhe. "During the course of their academic period, we get them processed with their clearances."

    Assuming that the interns come back to work for Booz after they graduate, the company has trained and security-cleared employees ready to hit the ground running--an asset that’s likely to be worth even more tomorrow than it is today.

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