Needed: One IT professional with excellent technology skills, a willingness to travel 75 percent of the week and top security clearance from the U.S. government.
Unfortunately, few people in the U.S. work force fit that profile, as IT consultancy Orizon Inc. discovered when it tried to staff its first project for the FBI in early 1999. As a subcontractor on the project, Orizon was charged with helping modernize the FBIs computer systems across the country.
“We had problems with staffing right from the beginning because finding the right talent out there was not easy,” said Michael McLean, executive vice president at the Rockville, Md., company.
The demand for IT workers with security clearance has only grown since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The federal government is determined to break down the information “stovepipes” among the vast bureaucracies of executive branch agencies and integrate their networks, an endeavor that requires considerable outside expertise. At the same time, the governments preoccupation with security has limited eligibility to those with security clearance.
Where once no clearance was needed for midlevel federal IT jobs, today even entry-level jobs at the Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security often can be filled only by cleared employees. The clearance process, never quick and easy, today is backlogged, leaving most major federal contractors with hundreds of IT positions unfilled.
The technology industry is lobbying to have the clearance process simplified and is pressing for hearings this spring. The industry has suggested that private-sector assessors be employed to reduce the adjudication backlog and that a system be created to allow agencies and contractors to share cleared workers. Companies are also looking for a fundamental system of investigation for standard clearances and a tiered system for more complicated clearances.
In the meantime, federal contractors that are unable to supply the needed workers themselves have turned to recruitment companies to locate cleared personnel. Orizon, which now has contracts with the DOD, the Department of the Treasury, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has sponsored approximately eight employees for security clearances, but the process is usually too slow for the job at hand, according to McLean.
To get people on the job in a timely fashion, Orizon looks to Secure IT, a division of Comsys Services LLC that specializes in finding cleared IT professionals primarily by recruiting military personnel as they prepare to leave the services.
“They understand that world, and they have authorization to work in that world,” McLean said about Secure IT.
Approximately one-third of the employees recruited through Secure IT have military backgrounds, McLean said.
Because federal contracts tend to be very large and long-term, almost all the major contractors have to turn to outside sources to fill skilled positions, said Bob Merkl, president and chief operating officer of Secure IT, in Rockville, Md. With the security-clearance process taking anywhere from six months to two years, few contractors try to sponsor all the workers needed, Merkl said.
“Most companies are very reluctant to sponsor anybody. Its a Catch-22,” Merkl said. “Even for people who have led relatively choirboy lives,” the process is long and cumbersome, he said.
Merkl, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1975 and retired from active military duty in 1998, leverages his contacts to identify IT professionals with clearances. Secure IT usually targets senior enlisted personnel and officers, about 75 percent of whom are already cleared, he said.
“If you can get people before they lose their clearances, then you dont have to go through the bureaucracy to get them certified again,” Merkl said.
A security clearance adds about a 5 percent premium to the average IT salary, and a top-secret clearance can add as much as 20 percent, according to Merkl. For those IT professionals willing to take a polygraph test in the clearance process, salaries can be as much as 30 percent higher.
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