It is virtually impossible to place a specific monetary value on a security clearance because of the variables at play: the particulars of a job; government versus contractor; experience level; and location. Given a similar cleared position in government and the private sector, the private sector will generally—if not always—offer a higher salary. And some jobs simply have no commercial analogue. There is no civilian equivalent to a covert case officer at the Central Intelligence Agency. So when placing a monetary value on a clearance, you are limited to averages and percentages. It is a rock solid fact, however, that holding a security clearance means a higher salary.

“I call security clearances the Willy Wonka golden ticket,” says Mark Zaid, a Washington D.C. national security attorney who regularly handles security clearances. “It opens incredible doors that otherwise would never be opened, and they typically have a bigger pot of gold at the end of the rainbow than non-cleared positions.”

INFINITE VALUE of a security clearance

Part of the challenge of placing a specific dollar value on a security clearance is the precipitous fall that accompanies losing a clearance. For federal employees within the Intelligence Community (IC), the loss of a clearance is a virtual guarantee of being terminated. Almost every IC position, with minimal exceptions, requires a security clearance. Things are a little better at the State Department.

“Most jobs at the State Department do require a clearance,” says Zaid, “but—and I don’t know of any other agency that does it as well as they do—if someone there loses a clearance, they will put them in an unclassified position.” It is not typically what a worker would otherwise have been doing. The work might likely be beneath the worker’s education and skill level… but at least it’s work, right?

Contractors are a different animal because the clearance decisions are made by the government agency—not the employer—and the two may have very different views on what just happened that led to the suspension, revocation, or denial of a clearance. “The contractor could obviously place the person somewhere else if they have a position commensurate to their talent, experience, and skill level, whether cleared or not,” explains Zaid. 

The long and short of it, though, is that if you lose your security clearance, in most cases, you lose your job. (This is especially true in the Washington D.C. area.) So how much is a clearance worth? Everything. Which means if yours might be in jeopardy, it is worth your time to consult a lawyer before the hammer falls.

Security clearance TRENDS AND BENEFITS

The 2018 ClearanceJobs Compensation Survey offers an avalanche of statistics concerning cleared jobs and the dollars they promise. The average total compensation for a cleared worker is $93,004. The total compensation for clearance holders with a full scope polygraph is $18,867 higher than their compatriots who have never been hooked up to the machine. Virginia is the top-paying state in the union for clearance holders, with a mean base bay of $92,031. Among the entire Virginia workforce, cleared or otherwise, the mean base pay is $53,980. (These are 2017 numbers, for an apples-to-apples comparison with the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.) That’s an almost forty thousand dollar advantage. The annual mean wage of workers across the entire United States is $50,620. Among cleared workers, it is $77,086. Again, it is impossible to pin down anything precisely because the overall workforce numbers include the higher salaries of cleared workers, and such outliers as Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates.

All of this is just an unbelievably good deal for veterans and service members coming off of active duty. Clearances have a reinstatement shelf-life of about two years after leaving the military. Couple that with the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, and a new civilian who maintains his or her clearance and earns a degree can be set, salary-wise, for life. It’s the easiest math you will ever do.

WHAT CLEARED WORKERS ARE WORTH

The financial windfall that comes with holding a clearance is not because clearances are so expensive to attain. As ClearanceJobs reported earlier this year, the cost to get a clearance is actually… pretty low, relatively speaking. A Secret clearance investigation in 2018 runs a whopping $433 dollars. A Top Secrets runs $5,596. And in any case, the government foots the bill on said clearance costs; contractors or individual employees are not paying for them.

The upshot is that the salary benefit of a security clearance is not because an employer is saving a fortune in conducting your investigation. Rather, a security clearance is in many ways like a college degree. To wit, earning an undergraduate degree does not mean a prospective worker is highly skilled in a particular area. Rather, a degree signifies that someone has done something relatively difficult for a relatively long time. That person is tenacious. Moreover, it means a prospective degree-holding worker can be taught, and brings to the job a broad array of knowledge in addition to his or her major.

So is it with a security clearance. A worker who brings a clearance to the table is probably a fairly reliable individual. They have avoided incurring crippling debt; have managed to sidestep systematically abusing alcohol or illegal drugs; have not committed major criminal acts; do not generally hang out with ne’er-do-wells; and are generally forthright about their past. They have, in other words, made sound decisions across a lifetime. What employer doesn’t want such a worker on the payroll? The considerations, obviously, go beyond that. Anyone who can bypass the worst of the clearance investigation backlog is a valuable asset. And the government ultimately needs someone in whom it can place the nation’s secrets. Contractors, in turn, need workers who can handle sensitive material and keep those lucrative defense contracts coming. 

That kind of person is worth a fortune.

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. He is currently at work on his next book, One Inch From Earth, which tells the story of scientists who study the outer planets of the solar system. He can be found online at https://www.dwb.io.