High Clearance, Low Prospects

The RPO community might help address our government’s tech security expert deficit.
By Michael Beygelman
An often-overlooked segment of the employment market is the U.S. Government and its myriad of contractors. A quick search in Google might reveal headlines like, “Biodefense Talent Shortage Threatens Preparedness” and “U.S. Faces Tech Security Expert Deficit.” In addition, when it comes to finding talent with security clearances, the talent shortage even gets worse. One article said it best, “Security Clearance: In Many Cases It’s Better Than Having an MBA.”

What are the HR community or think tanks prepared to do about the challenges our government will face in finding talent—not only filling jobs of upcoming retirees but also filling jobs in emerging technologies that will keep our country safe? Booz Allen Hamilton has researched this topic and in a recent study concluded, “the federal cyber-security work force is significantly challenged by serious shortages of highly skilled cyber-security specialists and an absence of coordinated leadership on cyber-security work force issues.” Research reports such as this have resulted in some creative approaches.

Recently, the bipartisan, nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies launched the U.S. Cyber Challenge (USCC) (, which aims to find 10,000 young workers through a series of competitions in California, New York, and Delaware. “The program nurtures and develops their skills and enables them to get access to advanced education and exercises, and where appropriate, enables them to be recognized by employers where their skills can be of the greatest value to the nation,” a press release from California’s Office of the State CIO stated. Initiatives such as this garner media attention and raise awareness. For example, CNN’s Jeanne Meserve recently did a report on the USCC and the value of such programs in helping to attract top talent to the government workforce.

Although creative solutions are being developed, the Department of Defense and its contractors are still faced with a shortage of readily available, already experienced talent that holds security clearances. And the process for getting new clearances takes so long that top talent isn’t going to wait the several months it requires to obtain one. First of all, an individual cannot apply for a security clearance directly—a cleared contractor or a government agency must sponsor the person. A person who wants to work for the U.S. Government or a defense contractor cannot actively pursue security clearance on his or her own. So much for people with initiative! But even if all the stars align, the process of getting a security clearance is riddled with complexity:

1. The first phase is the application process. This involves verification of U.S. citizenship, fingerprinting, and completion of the Personnel Security Questionnaire. The procedures are replete with acronyms and bureaucracy.

2. The second phase involves the actual investigation of a person’s background. Most of the background check is conducted by the Defense Security Service (DSS).

3. Last comes adjudication. The results from the investigative phase are reviewed. Information that has been gathered is evaluated based on 13 factors determined by the Department of Defense (DoD), including allegiance to the United States, criminal and personal conduct, and substance abuse or mental disorders.

Clearance is then granted or denied. In an ideal scenario, this process can take one to three months. But when added to the complexities and time requirements to interview diverse candidates, then make and accept an offer, etc., it can take upwards of six months to hire an IT expert and obtain his or her clearance.

We need new ideas to help the U.S. Government and defense contractors expedite the onboarding of employees, or they will just recycle the same talent from agency to agency, which is not sustainable. Perhaps RPO firms can interject their thought leadership in this area, but, they too would face more bureaucracy to qualify to do business with the government or contractors.

In an ideal world, the U.S. Government and government contractors would be looking at root-cause issues that might favorably impact their ability to attract and retain top talent in addition to developing new programs. At the most basic level, the U.S. Government and government contractors have to learn how to lower barriers for top talent to seek their employment. It used to be an elite thing, but the employment marketplace has evolved over the decades, requiring these old paradigms to be redefined. It is in everyone’s interests for this to happen quickly. We want the best and the brightest minds working for our country, and we want to cut unemployment. So let’s hope that the Obama administration looks at opportunities to change how the U.S. Government goes to market for top talent.

Tags: Consultants & Advisors, HRO Today Global, Professional Contribution

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