Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Clearance Crisis

OK, so I am making the case that there is a fierce War For Talent that has been raging here for the past few years and has no sign of letting up. With rock-bottom unemployment, there are talent and labor shortages in a number of industries and disciplines, but where is the pain the greatest? Starting here, and in future posts, I will explore how the industry responsible for providing for our country's defense and welfare is fighting the fiercest battles of all in the DC War For Talent.

As mentioned previously, the number one economic force in the DC area is federal government spending. Since 9/11, the greatest increase in government spending has been in the defense/intel/homeland security sector. Much of the work related to this sector is IT/Systems Engineering-based and/or Knowledge-based (i.e. much of this work is highly technical and/or requires advanced education. As a result, the DC area has one of the most highly educated workforces in the country). Since most of this work in this sector by nature is classified, most of the jobs require security clearances. An individual cannot obtain a security clearance on their own, they must be sponsored for a clearance by a government agency (or via a company with government contracts). In almost all cases, you must be a US Citizen to obtain a security clearance. Once you get sponsored to obtain a security clearance, the clearance itself is processed by a government agency such as OPM, DSS or an agency in the Intelligence Community (IC).

So, it isn't enough that you need to hire a highly-skilled Software Engineer, or Systems Administrator, or Program Manager, but in most cases they need an active clearance, or be eligible to obtain a clearance. Thus, we recruiters are all fishing out of a very, very shallow pool. But it gets worse. Let's say that you don't have a clearance, but are clearable, and are put into the clearance process. From scratch, it can take as much as 6 months to obtain a Secret-level clearance, over 12 months to obtain a Top Secret clearance, and 18-24 months or more to obtain a TS/SCI clearance. Add to that additional 'tickets' which provide you access to even higher levels of classified information, and you can add even more time to the clearance process. In other words, the higher the clearance level, the less cleared talent there is to choose from, and the longer it takes for new individuals to obtain the proper clearance levels.

Why does it take so long, well a number of reasons. First of all, the workforce responsible for processing these clearances is severely understaffed itself. As a result, the backlog of clearances to be processed ranges anywhere from 200K-400K, depending on who you talk to. The clearance process itself is very complicated, often relying on a number of factors which may be out of the investigator's control, including problems with an individual's clearance application itself.

Another major problem has been the issue of reciprocity across agencies, i.e. government agencies accepting each other's collateral clearances. This very issue was supposed to be addressed and solved as a result of recommendations from the 9/11 Commission and resulting legislation. But this issue is yet far from solved. A front-page article in today's Washington Post addresses the issue as it relates to IC agency-administered Polygraphs . This particular issue burns me the most as I have run into it on a couple of occasions myself. You find a perfectly good candidate who apparently has the right clearance level, and the customer you want to hire that candidate to support won't accept their clearance due to the way the candidate's clearance was processed by another agency!

The government has been struggling with this issue for years, and even with new laws that were supposed to fix this issue in the interest of the defense of our country, these government agencies still can't work out their differences and get this right. "The Clearance Crisis" critical and complex issue that I will continue to explore in the future. In the meantime, do be sure to check out today's Post article as it reflects some of the strange and bizarre twists that make the jobs of those of us "in the trenches" more and more challenging every day.


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