The Department of Defense has reduced the number of individuals with active federal security clearance by more than 700,000 in the past two years, according to data provided by the DoD to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and obtained by the website Secrecy News.

That reduction exceeds numbers released by the Office of Management and Budget, which outlined a 10 percent reduction in the cleared workforce in its FY 2016 budget documents. Both announcements signal a significant change in the process for issuing and maintaining federal security clearances. Rather than being able to hold onto cleared personnel, Uncle Sam is signalling that when it comes to the ability to access national security information – use it, or lose it.

A 15 percent reduction

The total DoD cleared population was reduced from 4.6 million in FY 2013 to 3.9 million in FY 2015. That represents a reduction of 15.3 percent. Any reductions for the remainder of the IC have not been provided, but with the Department of Defense maintaining the vast majority of the cleared workforce, a reduction in DoD numbers represent a significant overall reduction.

Why the need to reduce the size of the cleared workforce? Two key reasons – to save money and shore up security. The unprecedented leak of information by Edward Snowden forced the government to think more seriously about who has access to the ‘crown jewels’ of intelligence data, and who really needs to possess a security clearance at all. In the past, security clearances have been issued as almost a ‘workplace credential’ to land a job in the intelligence community and defense industry. A key example – the CIA’s top secret chef. Does a chef need a top secret clearance to do his job? No, but he does need one to work at that very exclusive facility.

Desk audits push contractors into a corner

In the past, industry has pushed back at the idea of desk audits and reductions in the number of cleared personnel. For government contractors who have employees working at multiple facilities and sometimes on a temporary basis, they may have cleared personnel ‘moonlighting’ on cleared projects but not dedicated to them. Crack-downs on the cleared workforce tend to signal that policy may no longer be feasible.

For Uncle Sam, the financial incentive to reduce the size of the cleared workforce is significant. A periodic reinvestigation for an SSBI security clearance costs just under $3,000. There is also a cost in personnel.  The past year saw significant upheaval in the contract investigation community, with background investigation firm USIS suspended and current investigations reassigned. The backlog in periodic reinvestigations was a significant concern cited in an OMB security clearance reform report released at this time last year. That report found that 22 percent of the TS/SCI population had an outdated investigation.

Will the decline continue?

It’s safe to say the current reduction in the workforce is not a one-time reduction but part of an ongoing trend to reduce the overall size of the cleared population. Reductions have been steady over the past two years, and more reductions are likely before a possible leveling off. For cleared government employees and contractors, if you’d like to keep your clearance, you have good incentive to push for assignments that require it. It’s also critically important to stay on top of the reinvestigation process, and notify your facility security officer as much as 6-months before your PR is due.

For cleared employers, a reduction in the cleared workforce means increased challenges in finding and retaining personnel with high-value skills, particularly skilled engineers and cybersecurity professionals.

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Lindy Kyzer is the editor of ClearanceJobs.com. She loves the NISPPAC, social media, and the U.S. military. Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email lindy.kyzer@clearancejobs.com. Interested in writing for ClearanceJobs.com? Learn more here.