Many things have changed since the mid ‘80s.  It is hard to believe, but not that long ago, the way to find a job was to type up a resume, copy it onto some good quality paper, and mail it out to firms that you were interested in.  Then you would wait a couple of weeks for a response that would typically never arrive.  Meanwhile, you would keep mailing more resumes and hoping that you would receive a reply.  Technology, or the lack of it, was a big factor.  It truly was a different world.

We have done a complete 180 in today’s intelligence community and cleared hiring market.  Recruiters are now the ones sending out unreturned messages which disappear into the equivalent of the 1980’s circular file.

What Has Changed?

Of course, personal computers, the Internet, and even mobile phones have been major drivers in changing how recruiting within the intelligence community is accomplished.  We can now apply online, send and receive emails about job opportunities, click on company websites and go to career pages for up-to-the-minute information on openings, benefits, and company information.

With such great recruiting tools available, why hasn’t the recruiting picture improved for hiring firms?  The fact is we currently have a very troublesome situation for recruiters and hiring managers within our defense contracting establishment and we have an annoying state of affairs for working, cleared, experienced professionals.  A cleared software engineer friend told me last week that all he had to do was update his resume and he will get 20+ emails from recruiters. Technology has improved greatly, but demand has out-paced supply.  We need more cleared engineers.

how to hire cleared cyber talent? steal it.

There are very few (if any) engineers with high-level clearances out looking for a job.  Today, recruiters and hiring managers throughout the IC are doing the electronic equivalent of walking up to busy engineers, tapping them on the shoulder and saying, “Excuse me, I know you like your current cleared job, but let me tell you about this other cleared job.”

The demand for cleared engineers (software, network, cyber, system, etc.) has grown not only within the intelligence community, but across industry.  Cyber, something many of us have been working with for close to 20 years or more, has become mainstream.  Now it is not just the intelligence community who actively seeks to keep private things secure, and big money is involved on both sides.  The supply and demand situation was adversely impacted a few years ago during a federal budget showdown.  Sequestration.  As a result of sequestration, good engineers decided cleared work was just too much trouble.  I recall one engineer telling me that a 10-15% premium on salary was just not worth it when he had to spend time sitting at home during this or that budget impasse.

The lengthy clearance process itself is a factor.  When hiring managers and customers have an opening, they need it filled ASAP.  There is no way a position will wait the 2+ years it will take for a senior engineer to obtain a clearance.

There is a huge demand and supply is simply not sufficient.

how to fix the cleared engineering shortage

We all know why it is important to ensure the integrity and trustworthiness of those of us who work within the intelligence community.  With the insider threat being what it is, this is not a call for relaxing the security vetting process.  There are only two things that can be done to resolve a supply and demand imbalance.  You can decrease the demand or increase the supply.  If we could make some changes to correct the supply and demand situation, what would they be?

  • IC security could establish criteria for companies themselves to vet and select potential candidates to be put through the established clearance process based on anticipated future needs rather than existing Contractor Position Roster Log (CPRL) slots.
  • Awarded contracts should include 5-10% above the full-time-equivalent (FTE) count just for candidate clearance processing. Proposal staffing plans should include how these slots will be shared among the team, particularly small businesses.
  • A new process should be developed for individuals who have expired TS and above clearances so that they do not have to start over as if they had never held a clearance.
  • Intelligence community agencies should partner with academic institutions to clear promising candidates, making them available for government positions immediately upon graduation.

This is simply the start. What are some of your ideas?

Today we are looking for cleared engineers. Tomorrow we may have a shortage of analysts. We need a strategy for dealing with critical skill imbalances. Look at it this way, the government would like to cut costs. If the demand vs. supply equation moves back in the other direction, it stands to reason that costs will also decrease or at least not rise so rapidly.

Some Things Have Not Changed

When it comes to either looking for a job or hiring someone to fill a position, one thing that has not changed is the fact that word of mouth – personal references, who you know, professional contacts and friends of friends – are huge when it comes to finding or filling a new position. Hiring managers like to have confidence in who they are hiring.  Certifications and degrees earned can guarantee (usually) a minimal standard of knowledge. But what about work ethic, personality, teamwork, and so on? Personal knowledge is of great value in finding as well as having confidence in a new hire.

Another thing that has not changed very much is the age-old problem faced by the young – How do I get a job in my chosen career field without experience, and how do I get experience without a job?  Fortunately, this is a problem with some potential solutions. Certifications can be obtained and they alone, with or without a degree, can help to get your foot in the door of a career in intelligence. Job seekers without a clearance or with expired clearances should look for positions that require Public Trust or Secret. Compared to higher level clearances, these are obtained much more quickly, usually within the average time frames for an open position.

the circle of defense spending and engineering supply

Back in the day, the job seeker was the one who hoped for a reply.  Now, at least when it comes to engineers with higher level clearances, it is the recruiter’s turn.  It can hardly be of benefit to existing IC programs to poach and shuffle around quality, cleared engineers between programs with valid missions affected.  Defense spending is cyclical. The defense budget to which the IC is beholden has periods of growth as well as lean years. We need a strategy for how demand for cleared resources will be met.

There is a saying that I have used for so long that I have forgotten where it came from.  “If this job was easy, then anybody could do it.”  I used to say this when facing a particularly challenging technical problem.  Now it comes to mind as I write emails and leave phone messages for cleared engineers.  “Excuse me, I know you currently have a job, but…”

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Todd Keys is a Program Manager at Cantada, Inc. He has been in the intelligence Community for 30 years, as a member of the military (USAF), and as a contractor for top 100, top 10, and small business federal defense contractors. He has held multiple roles, CONUS and OCONUS, ranging from technician to executive, providing site O&M, system administration, engineering, supervision, contract management, and Capture/BD for the DoD and multiple intelligence agencies.