Beltway/N. Virginia

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2002-11-11 Print this article Print

Beltway/N. Virginia

In the wake of terrorist attacks and the looming specter of war, business is surging for defense contractors. Many of these contractors are clustered around Washingtons Beltway and within northern Virginia—a region that, when combined with Maryland and West Virginia, has seen the lowest jobless rate in the nation for four consecutive months when looking at the 51 metropolitan areas tracked by the BLS that have a 1990 census population of 1 million or more. The unemployment rate stood at 3.5 percent as of Oct. 30.

Susan Baker, vice president of Workforce Development for the Northern Virginia Technology Council, in Herndon, said the council estimates a current demand for some 4,000 to 5,000 IT workers as jobs go unfilled in the region. These openings are primarily with government contractors such as SAIC, CACI International Inc. and BAE Systems plc., Baker said.

It may be surprising to contemplate so many IT jobs going unfilled in this economic climate. But when they relate to the defense industry, such shortfall claims might be believable, especially when you consider the difficulty employers have getting the security clearances needed for their employees to work on most defense projects. Depending on the level of security clearance in question, background checks can take from 12 to 18 months. The clearance is sponsored by the hiring company, which cannot put IT employees to work until they are cleared.

Clearances last five years. If youve got one, you can practically name your starting salary. "In this market, anyone who has a clearance can interview all over town and get multiple offers," Baker said. "Keeping in mind that it takes [up to] $25,000 to get them cleared, you see a lot of that put into their salaries [if candidates are already cleared]."

SAICs director of employment, Devette Lancon, in McLean, Va., backed up Bakers assertions. SAIC currently has more than 3,000 IT openings companywide. About half of the companys work is government-related, and one-third of that work requires a clearance. High-level security clearances usually result in salary premiums of 5 to 10 percent, Lancon said.

The toughest positions for SAIC to fill are those that require extensive IT backgrounds, Lancon said. That includes not just coding and software development skills but also large-scale system implementation and people management experience. The most-sought-after people right now are program or project managers whove been responsible for profit and loss and systems integration—with a high-level security clearance, of course.

Defense is not the regions only sector thats thriving. The biomedical sector, as with the other regions profiled in this report, is poised to churn out what might be a substantial number of tech jobs in the future. Eli Lilly and Co., for one, is opening up a headquarters site in Prince William County in northern Virginia. Even more exciting, though, is a 281-acre campus for biomedical research that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute plans to open by the end of 2005 or early 2006.

Avis Mehan, a spokeswoman for Howard Hughes Medical, in Chevy Chase, Md., said the new campus—the Janelia Farm Research Campus—will open with a small cadre of some 24 scientists working in biological research. But Baker, of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, is optimistic about the campuss potential for generating IT jobs.

"With such a large campus, I cant imagine thered be less than 1,000 employees," she said.

Whatever the number of biomedical/biotech jobs the future might bring, the region now presents a strong market for IT jobs. And for those IT people contemplating working for a defense contractor in the area, SAICs Lancon had this added job benefit to offer: "Always at the foundation of everything we do ... is whats best for our country," she said. "Its appealing to come to the region because [IT people are] doing work in support of initiatives at the White House or the Pentagon. You can really see the fruits of your labors."

Lisa Vaas is News Editor/Operations for and also serves as editor of the Database topic center. Since 1995, she has also been a Webcast news show anchorperson and a reporter covering the IT industry. She has focused on customer relationship management technology, IT salaries and careers, effects of the H1-B visa on the technology workforce, wireless technology, security, and, most recently, databases and the technologies that touch upon them. Her articles have appeared in eWEEK's print edition, on, and in the startup IT magazine PC Connection. Prior to becoming a journalist, Vaas experienced an array of eye-opening careers, including driving a cab in Boston, photographing cranky babies in shopping malls, selling cameras, typography and computer training. She stopped a hair short of finishing an M.A. in English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She earned a B.S. in Communications from Emerson College. She runs two open-mic reading series in Boston and currently keeps bees in her home in Mashpee, Mass.

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