BACKGROUND CLEAN? You're in the green

IT recruiter Greg McElroy returned from a job fair in a Washington suburb recently with resumes from a handful of top candidates for Northrop Grumman Corp.'s 1,200 vacant positions. The candidates' most striking qualification: All of them hold federal security clearances.

"About 70 percent of our vacancies require security clearances," said McElroy, director of recruitment and planning for Northrop Grumman IT.

Now comes the difficult part: Luring the best prospects away from the other half dozen recruiters.

"Competition for these people is very fierce," McElroy said. "It's almost like the dot-com era."

And the fight for people seems unlikely to abate anytime soon. Despite President Bush's designation of a security clearance czar two months ago, as well as other recent policy initiatives intended to speed applications through the pipeline, federal IT contractors and industry officials said the situation is still deteriorating.

The Government Accountability Office reported that in 2004, it took more than a year to process a security clearance.

"Small progress has been made, but not at reducing the backlog," said Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president of the Professional Services Council, an association in Washington that represents government contractors. "The backlog continues to grow."



NO RELIEF IN SIGHT

With federal IT budgets expected to rise by 7 percent overall and 25 percent at the Homeland Security Department in fiscal 2006, and with the government continuing to classify more documents, contractors expect further difficulties in hiring qualified IT workers who have clearances.

"There is no relief on the horizon," said Evan Lesser, director of Clearancejobs.com, an online job-seeking service for people who have clearances. "We don't expect any changes by year's end."

The backlog in getting security clearances, which has been a problem for several years, worsened considerably as a result of the intense focus on national security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Since then, the backlog -- including investigations, adjudications and reinvestigations for both military, civilian workers and contractor personnel -- has grown.

The Defense Department has about 329,000 clearances in the pipeline, said Heather Anderson, acting defense security service director, in testimony June 28 to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

But that entire caseload is not a backlog, she said. Even if investigations could be run as quickly as within 90 days, an average load of 150,000 cases would remain in the pipeline each day because of the large number of clearances overall, Anderson said.

As of the most recent report, in March 2004, the backlog of cases for defense industry personnel was 188,000, a number that had doubled in the past six months, according to a GAO report in May 2004.

It took an average 375 days in 2004 for an industry contractor to get a clearance, GAO said. About 650,000 of the Defense Department's 2.5 million active security clearances are held by contractor personnel.

The long wait for clearances has slowed hiring of government intelligence analysts and anti-terrorism experts, and has made it difficult for Pentagon contractors to manage their workforce needs. A large percentage of the contract positions requiring clearances are IT-related.

"Whether they are computer technology consultants, network engineers or intelligent analysts, contractors play a vital role in securing our nation. Therefore, it's imperative that we improve this process because, in today's job market, it's unrealistic to assume that the best and brightest applicants are going to wait more than one year to receive a government clearance so they can then begin their jobs," said Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) at the June 28 hearing.



INROADS TO EMPLOYEES

To reduce the backlog and begin a more centralized procedure, under the 2004 Defense Authorization Bill, the Pentagon's security clearance investigation workforce was transferred to the Office of Personnel Management in February.

Last year's intelligence reform bill also included provisions to update the clearance process. In June, President Bush issued an executive order designating the director of the Office of Management and Budget as the lead official on clearance policy.

However, industry officials said none of the changes have led to definitive improvements in the backlog to date, nor are any foreseen in the near future.

"It's frustrating that there are not established timelines for change," said Jennifer Kerber, director of homeland security for the Information Technology Association of America, an industry group in Arlington, Va. "We think there is a need for greater reciprocity, transparency and uniformity in the clearance process."

Meanwhile, contractors are competing hard to attract IT candidates, particularly those with the most desirable Top Secret or Top Secret with Sensitive Compartmented Information clearances.

Demand is likely to keep rising while national security IT budgets are increasing and while an increasing percentage of federal documents are classified.

The federal government classified a record 15.6 million documents in 2004, a 10 percent increase from the year before, according to a report from the Fund for Constitutional Government. In 1995, only 3.6 million documents were classified. By 2001 that number had risen to 8.6 million, and it has grown every year since then.

At Northrop Grumman, McElroy said he uses several strategies to find cleared candidates to fill IT positions for the company's $5 billion IT division, including going directly to colleges to recruit applicants.

"We make job offers while they are still in school, and begin the clearance process immediately to bring them into the pool," McElroy said.

Specialty placement services -- including Clearancejobs.com, a division of employment services company Dice Inc.of Urbana, Iowa, and Kelly FedSecure of Greenbelt, Md., a division of employment agency Kelly Services Inc. -- have sprung up in recent years to answer the need.

"The demand for cleared workers is going up, and supply is going down," said Michael Bernard, managing director of Kelly FedSecure. "The improvements we've seen will take a few years to be implemented."

Salary premiums for job seekers who have Top Secret clearances range from about 10 percent to 20 percent in contrast to similar posts without security clearance requirements, Bernard and Chvotkin said.

At Clearancejobs.com, 34,000 candidates with clearances are seeking positions, about half of them for IT-related posts, Lesser said.

"There are tons of contracts, but a limited pool of applicants," he said. "It's hard to recruit when each job seeker gets hammered by five to eight recruiters."

A Pentagon IT contractor's recruitment officer recently asked Lesser to help immediately hire 10 employees with Top Secret security clearances.

"What other qualifications do they need?" Lesser asked.

"Just a pulse," the officer said.

Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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