• United States

Worth the wait

News Analysis
Jun 07, 20045 mins

Security clearances take more than a year to obtain, but federal IT work pays well.

If you’re looking for job security, consider working on a top-secret IT project under development by the federal government. Government contractors have thousands of unfilled IT jobs, including network design, engineering and management positions. These positions let you support the wartime effort, use the latest technology and earn high pay.

Even better, government work offers protection against offshoring. Only qualified U.S. citizens can pursue these posts, which must remain here in the U.S.

What to expect during the security clearance process

The only hitch is that you’ll need a security clearance, and getting a security clearance takes a year or longer.

Nonetheless, more unemployed IT workers are making the switch to government contracting as a wise career move in these uncertain times.

Consider Anthony Campbell, a network engineer who holds Cisco and security  certifications. After working in the private sector for several years, Campbell joined a government contractor in 2001 and renewed a security clearance he received in 1991 during a stint with the U.S. Army.

Campbell finds the government work more challenging than the work he did in the commercial sector. “Most civilian companies are nowhere near as security-conscious. It’s just not something they put a priority on,” he says. “I happen to think more about security when it comes to, say, how a network is structured.”

Secure IT, a Rockville, Md., government contractor that specializes in staffing classified projects, hired Campbell to work on a multimillion-dollar LAN and WAN upgrade at the FBI. He earned an immediate boost in pay even though it took eight months to renew his top-secret clearance.

With the FBI project nearing completion, Campbell is in demand. “I get calls from recruiters every couple of days,” says Campbell, who is based in Dacula, Ga. “There’s always work available. Getting a security clearance is a good career move.”

For example, contractor Wamnet Government Services plans to hire 150 people this year, including network designers, architects and technicians. Most of the company’s 665 employees have security clearances.

“Virtually all of the hires we are making require security clearances,” says Mike Barbee, president of Wamnet Government Services in Herndon, Va. “From our perspective, it’s easier if we hire people with active clearances. But we hire lots and lots of people from the commercial world and sponsor them for a clearance.”

Security clearances must be renewed periodically: every five years for top-secret, every 10 years for secret and every 15 years for confidential.

An arm of the Department of Defense is responsible for conducting background investigations for the 25 federal agencies that let industry personnel access classified information. According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), the Defense Department has issued 2 million security clearances, with 682,000 – or 34% – going to industry personnel and the rest to government personnel.

The war on terrorism is feeding the demand for techies with security clearances. The federal government is upgrading many networks, and more federal jobs require clearances now than before the Sept. 11 attacks. A higher percentage of the clearances required are for top-secret clearances, which take the most amount of time to issue. The increased workload for government investigators also has slowed the clearance process, making such a credential an even more valuable asset.

The Defense Department’s security clearance backlog for industry personnel was roughly 188,000 cases as of March 31, according to a May report by the GAO. GAO found that the average time it takes the Defense Department to award a security clearance for industry personnel is more than a year, up 56 days since 2001.

At a Congressional hearing last month, Doug Wagoner, vice president of Data Systems Analysis and chairman of the Information Technology Association of America’s Intelligence/Security Clearance Task Group, said the delays in obtaining security clearances rank near the top of the chief concerns ITAA members have about doing business with the federal government.

In a recent survey of its members, ITAA found that 22% of respondents said they have 500 or more positions open that require a security clearance. Nearly 70% of the respondents indicated that the clearance process hindered their ability to expand their companies.

Government contractors are awarding $15,000 and $20,000 signing bonuses for new employees with a valid security clearance and a $10,000 bonus to current employees who recruit a new employee with a clearance, according to the GAO report.

“If you’re a systems engineer with a top-secret clearance, you’ll see a 15% to 20% differential in your salary,” says Bob Merkl, president of Secure IT. “We have thousands of open requisitions, and only one or two people surface that have the [necessary] skills.”

If you’re interested in getting a security clearance, you need to be sponsored by a government contractor that is cleared at the facility levels and has classified and unclassified projects. Then you can work on an unclassified project during the year it takes for you to get your security clearance.

“During the security clearance background check, attention to detail is essential,” Barbee says. “Many people will inadvertently leave something off their application, and the government will find it. . . . People who don’t make it through the process aren’t truthful.”

Once you’re issued a security clearance, you face abundant job opportunities, government contractors agree.

“Network architects and designers who come from the commercial world are lapping it up,” Barbee says.