Security Clearance and Military Training Key for New Veterans Seeking Jobs

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With an estimated 250,000 active duty soldiers leaving the U.S. military in 2005, new veterans are finding the ease of entry into the civilian workforce dependent on two key elements, maintaining an active security clearance and comprehensive training.

While the U.S. economy slowly works its way towards pre-September 11th levels, most segments of the nation’s workforce have experienced higher than average unemployment rates. New jobless claims rose to 350,000 in the last week of May - 25,000 more than expected. Although new unemployment claims dropped overall in May, the four-week moving average still suggests continued caution about new jobs being added.

The prospect of unemployment doesn’t keep CTO3 Mark Lemcke of the U.S. Navy awake at night, like it does some people. Even with a wife and an infant son to support, Lemcke possesses two key elements that will make his impending transition to the civilian employment world significantly easier. His active security clearance coupled with strong military training puts CTO3 Lemcke in an enviable position for a job in the burgeoning U.S. defense and homeland security industries.

Bull in a Bear Market

Fueled by a record $450 billion budget in FY2005, the U.S. defense industry is a veritable bull in an otherwise bear market. New defense and homeland security initiatives along with an ongoing war on terrorism have produced a steady flow of multi-million dollar government contracts. These large and sought-after contracts require private sector employers to provide federal agencies with a range of services: information technology, building security, systems engineering, logistics, intelligence analysis, linguistics, and management roles top the list of desired positions. As these contracts are awarded to defense industry employers, hundreds of new jobs become available each week.

Security Clearance Required

This bandwagon is not for everyone to jump on, and the average unemployed “Joe” and “Jane” need not apply for these new jobs. A primary requirement for careers in the defense industry is a U.S. government-granted security clearance. Want one? According to ClearanceJobs.com, the leading online job board for security-cleared workers, most jobless people do. Especially in cities with a heavy military and defense contractor presence like San Diego, Colorado Springs, and metro Washington, DC where there are more open jobs than cleared talent to fill them.

Getting cleared is not easy. Enterprising individuals cannot simply fill out the necessary paperwork and start applying for these clearance-required positions. ClearanceJobs.com Director Evan Lesser explains, “Security clearances are awarded only to U.S. citizens who have a ‘need to know’ and access sensitive information regarding national security in their daily work.” Lesser also notes that each uncleared worker is investigated for a clearance only at the direct request of an authorized government contractor or the U.S. military.

The Backlog

Security clearance investigations are expensive and time-consuming for the individual being cleared and the sponsoring organization. Depending on the level of clearance requested, the investigation process can take anywhere from 12 to 24 months from initial paperwork to clearance award. During that time, the employer will usually pay the individual a salary while they wait for the clearance to process. If the employer has unclassified work available, the candidate anticipating clearance can be of temporary use. If no such projects are available, the new employee often gets paid for simply waiting. Smaller employers with limited budgets simply cannot afford to clear an uncleared worker.

Presently, it is estimated that more than 200,000 candidates are awaiting security clearances. Some candidates are in line to be investigated, while another group has completed the investigation process and are expecting a future clearance award. The often asked question is if the larger defense contractors have any weight in getting candidates cleared faster. An anonymous Facility Security Officer (FSO) for a prominent metro DC employer shared that an Executive Secretary he got cleared has been waiting almost two years for her permanent Secret clearance. The government investigator assigned to the case claimed to be just finishing up with his work dated from 2003.

Although the security clearance backlog is down from its 450,000 peak in 2001, the long timeframe to clear an uncleared worker has been the subject of recent debate and concern. Congressional hearings last year had U.S. lawmakers asking for accountability of the growing length of time to clear an individual. Briefings explained that the backlog had taken a financial toll on the U.S. defense industry, and put national security at risk as important programs and initiatives are delayed due to staffing problems.

Employers Getting Creative

The clearance backlog has forced defense industry employers to develop new and unique methods of sourcing candidates. Instead of waiting the requisite 1-2 years for an uncleared candidate to be ready for work, employers are tapping new resources that give them immediate access to job seekers that already have active clearances in place.

Online job board ClearanceJobs.com has experienced exponential growth since its July 2002 launch as it meets the needs of defense industry employers. Every job seeker listed on ClearanceJobs.com has an active or current clearance. Unlike other internet-based resources, ClearanceJobs.com is secure and restricted for use only to authorized U.S. government contractors and pre-screened search firms. Each company that registers is manually investigated and approved before access is granted. The board has registered almost 40,000 cleared job seekers to date, and averages another 2,500 new seekers registered each month. A survey of open jobs listed on ClearanceJobs.com shows a mix of positions. While most open jobs are for employment with government contractors, the government itself is catching on to this resource and has posted its own Federal positions that need to be filled.

With 60% of the cleared workforce coming from the U.S. military, defense industry employers have found that individuals leaving the service have the required active security clearance in addition to quality training and a “can-do” work ethic. Bill Gaul, CEO of The Destiny Group, an internet portal for career-hunting veterans, explains. “Military training instills not only valuable technical skills, but also focuses on mission accomplishment and team building core values, something that is best proven in a stressful environment before you can say you are capable of it.”

For these reasons, transitioning military service members are finally finding themselves in demand. For job seekers like CTO3 Lemcke, this is an opportunity for the taking. With both an active security clearance and training as a network administrator, Lemcke can earn up to $80,000 per year when he leaves the U.S. Navy this November. A certification could boost his starting salary even higher, but the active clearance is the key to timely employment.

Defense industry employers have also found cleared job seekers with military backgrounds on internet websites like RecruitMilitary.com. Site President Drew Myers, a former U.S. Marine Corps officer, founded RecruitMilitary in the late 1990s and focused the company’s efforts on helping veterans find new careers. Myers echoes the value of a security clearance in today’s job market and has watched demand increase with time: “A typical cleared individual who is transitioning out of the armed forces has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Specifically, a cleared job candidate now has an advantage over a non-cleared candidate who is otherwise better-qualified.”

Supply and Demand

In fact, a recent study by ClearanceJobs.com shows that cleared job seekers earn an average of $10,000 to $20,000 more per year than their non-cleared counterparts. As an example, a Senior Logistics Analyst position in metro Washington, DC posted on ClearanceJobs.com was paying a range from $87,000 to $92,000 per year. On another job board for careers that do not require a clearance, a similar position with the same requirements in metro DC was paying only $40,000 to $55,000 per year – almost half of the cleared position.

ClearanceJobs.com co-founder Rachel Staras explains that the deviation in salaries between cleared and uncleared workers with similar skills and experience is all about supply and demand. “Employers are willing to pay more for a worker with a security clearance already in place. The additional expense is absorbed over the long term as projects can be staffed sooner without the wait.” At a recent metro DC forum of defense employers sponsored by ClearanceJobs.com, this sentiment was echoed by recruiters. One human resources representative summarized the situation best: “From a recruiter’s standpoint, I tend to have to settle for someone who can be trained. We’re back to recruiting for potential instead of recruiting for skills.”

Changes for Defense Industry Careers

The U.S. Department of Defense and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) have begun to work on ways to reduce the clearance backlog. Of most importance is the effort to create a centralized database of clearance holders employed by the Federal government and its contractors, regardless of the agency that issued the clearance. In the past, a candidate with a clearance from one government agency (such as the Department of Energy) often had to undergo an entirely new clearance investigation to transfer to another agency like the Department of Defense or Department of State. The lack of ability to shift between agencies is partially responsible for the security clearance backlog as candidates are being investigated multiple times and submitting duplicate paperwork. The OPM hopes to have the centralized database in place by December of this year.

Some government clearance efforts are well-intentioned, but not implemented fully which creates a new set of problems. Last year, the OPM switched from a paper form (called the EPSQ or Electronic Personnel Security Questionnaire) to an electronic form (called e-Qip for Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing) to gather a clearance seeker’s personal information. The new electronic forms make data entry faster. Unfortunately, each existing cleared job seeker must also be re-entered into the government’s database. Since no tool was provided to import data from the old system to the new, employers’ FSOs must add the information the old fashioned way – by typing each individual employee record by hand. While this additional work is simply a minor annoyance for the small defense sub-contractor with a handful of employees, companies with 50, 100, or 5000 cleared employees to manage are experiencing another large logistical issue to overcome.

A Shrinking Workforce

In addition to problems with the security clearance process, defense industry employers are faced with a shrinking workforce of cleared job seekers. As older cleared civilians retire from government service in record numbers, soldiers leaving the military will make up an increased percentage of this talent pool.

Job seekers like CTO3 Lemcke can use the changing situation to their advantage by finding security clearance jobs on resources like ClearanceJobs.com. As salaries increase and the workforce becomes smaller, cleared job seekers will continue to have the upper hand in the hiring process. ClearanceJobs.com Director Evan Lesser offers this advice to military transitioners: “While your clearance alone may actually land you a job, it won’t keep you there. Acquiring skills and experience is the key to making yourself invaluable.”

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