The number of individuals currently waiting for security clearance in the defense sector has more than tripled over the past four years to well over half a million, according to the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB). While the backlog has been reduced from an all-time high of 725,000 to 657,000 recently, the defense talent shortage remains a major barrier for employers.

The backlog is now putting a serious strain on defense manufacturing growth. This is in part because the workers gaining clearance in any batch of federal approvals may not match an employer’s needs. Real-time needs, especially in the manufacturing sector, are unlikely to match the latest batch of approved applicants.

One work around for some defense contractors has been to look to those still in school. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that companies such as General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin are already making college recruiting a key part of their national security recruiting strategy.

Acquiring talent early in the application process is critical, particularly in the IT sector, where there are now more than 12 positions for each applicant.

“We have started to hire interns from local universities as well as community colleges,” said Paul Wilkinson, executive vice president for corporate strategy and business development at 1901 Group. “We hire them, put them through the security clearance process, get them cleared early and then get them certified.

“We can put these students to work on meaningful projects, and 70 to 80% end up staying with us after graduation,” Wilkinson told ClearanceJobs. “This is how we are tapping into talent in today’s tight job market.”

One benefit of hiring at the school level is that students can focus on the skills they’ll need for their potential job while they’re still in a full or part time learning environment.

“We’re also trying to embed the IT skills in the curriculum at the schools,” added Wilkinson. “Academia is seeing this as a trend already, but the gap is only going to get worse as we transition to new technologies.”

Taking on Crystal City

There could be another issue that could also seriously impact the defense sector – one that promises to be a greater threat than a rogue state: Amazon.

The retail giant announced earlier this month that it will put part of its second headquarters in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Crystal City, and that could increase the strain on a market already stretched thin. Amazon’s cloud computing division is already considered the front-runner for the Pentagon’s massive $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud computing contract.

Amazon currently has a 10-year, $600 million cloud contract with the CIA that began in 2013, and the company has invested heavily in hosting government data in the cloud at unclassified, sensitive, secret and top-secret classifications levels.

“The backlog has been a challenge for almost the past 10 years, but it could get more complicated as Amazon opens its Crystal HQ,” said Wilkinson. “This will just make the market even tighter.”

To address this, employers in the defense sector will need to get even more aggressive – and start earlier – in their effort to attract the right talent.

“We need to make sure that we’re preparing students at the high school level so that they have the skills for the next wave,” said Wilkinson. “The important thing to remember is that these are not the skills that those who have 30 years in the workforce readily possess. We need to see the students of today as the untapped source of talent. So this means reaching out to community colleges as well as universities.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.