Security clearance delays are a national security issue. And they’re also a C-suite issue for defense contractors unable to hire and retain talent.
“We are very concerned about the rising cost of cleared candidates and how that’s going to impact us,” said Michelle Sutphin, industry representative for the National Industrial Security Policy Advisory Council (NISPPAC), in an interview last year. “We’ve been emphasizing this over and over again that this is now a C-suite issue. That is what we keep saying because this is going to start hitting the bottom lines of companies because salaries keep increasing.”
In a Q and A with the Engility CEO published in Defense One earlier this month, the same sentiment was echoed. Asked how a company like Engility competes with Silicon Valley for talent, Engility CEO Lynn Dugle cited clearances as a key issue that keeps them from being competitive.
“I’m not going to try to diminish the challenge because it’s huge. As a member of the intelligence community for years, I really believe it’s a national-security issue. I’m very personally…very much engaged on the clearance issue. There’s no way we’re going to attract and retain talent if it takes 15 months to clear [people for jobs]. We have to have the right work environment. People work for a team and a team leader. You have to have the benefits spread and you have to be very sensitive, especially on guys in high demand, that they get interesting work and a variety of work. You have to be very deliberate and thoughtful about it because if you don’t, they’ll be bored and they’ll move on.”
Companies invest significant amounts in human capital acquisition and retention. But for defense contractors, there is one key element of the hiring process which is largely outside of their control – the security clearance process. They may be able to attract the best talent, but the difficulty retaining it through a one-to-two-year security clearance process is another issue entirely.
Applicants frequently complain about the lack of information given throughout the process. If you’re onboarding with a defense contractor, it’s easy to blame your facility security officer or recruiter for their lack of awareness. But in most cases even the best informed recruiter is still at the mercy of a slow investigation process, with very limited information.
The Lost Reform Effort: Security Clearance Reciprocity
Dugle brings up an issue that has been a topic of security clearance reform efforts for decades – reciprocity. While you may have obtained a security clearance through the Department of Defense, if you want to move into an Intelligence Community (IC) position with Engility, you’ll likely face a new security clearance investigation process – even if the information you require access to is at the same classification level. And it’s not just adjudications between DoD and the IC which are inconsistent. At agencies from the Department of Justice, to the Department of Homeland Security, you’ll generally encounter a distinct suitability process and months of delays simply getting a clearance transferred – even if no new investigation is required.
In today’s ultra-competitive contracting environment, those delays are especially critical. Because the number of security clearance holders has been reduced by approximately 30 percent over the past several years, there is a much smaller candidate pool to choose from. If your company doesn’t have the multiple years it may take to process an initial investigation, you’re likely poaching candidates from competitors, or other contracts. But even in those cases, without reciprocity between the agencies, companies still face several months of delays just to onboard that already cleared candidate.
Current security clearance reform efforts focus almost entirely on continuous evaluation, an important program designed to vet out insider threats and prevent the next Edward Snowden or Reality Winner. But without incorporating the importance of reciprocity into the reform conversation, defense contractors will face the same issues in attracting and keeping talent from making the jump to the commercial sector.