For defense hiring, the structure of your talent acquisition team matters. But there is no strategy that is a one size fits all for every company, and even more so, no blanket recruiting role that works for every person. There are many differences between being a recruiter and a headhunter in the cleared space.


The ‘Recruiter’ title is usually applied to an individual working in talent acquisition, but they could be speaking on behalf of an agency, or more often working in-house for a single defense contracting company.

Recruiters are tasked with partnering with hiring managers to define position requirements, developing job descriptions, posting openings online, sourcing, interviewing, negotiating offers, and working with other stakeholders like FSOs to get their security clearances indoc’d. They work through the entire talent acquisition lifecycle to find incredible people to work on their teams.

In-house recruiters identify themselves as employees of the organization that they are hiring for. They’ll have more information other than requirements, like company benefits, culture, history, or what it means to work there on a daily basis. They can also be more inclined on selling their open position, making sure you have a great candidate experience and impression of the business overall to make a solid career decision.


While some defense contractors have employees designated for recruitment, companies that don’t might need sourcing or recruiting support from a headhunter to find the perfect secret squirrel to fill a role.

These individuals fill positions quickly and offer an unconventional option to the recruitment process. Headhunters will often introduce themselves to candidates as a representative of their external recruiting agency, sometimes working on a contract basis for themselves.

What is better for your company?

There are different reasons why hiring a recruiter is better or relying on a headhunter to fill open roles is beneficial. When a company is deciding whether to hire internally or outsource for staffing needs, management should consider the distinctive needs of their company.

If companies need just a single piece of the process completed (ie sourcing resumes and matching against minimum requirements), a headhunter could be the best option. But if you look at your staffing landscape for a contract your have four years left on a contract with different roles across 50 requisitions (plus maybe a contract surge halfway through with 50 more roles), get yourself a few in-house recruiters.

Staffing agencies are also an alternative to the headhunter if you don’t have a designated recruiter. Companies looking to fill specific roles that have been hard to fill and lack the internal manpower to perform could benefit from a staffing agency.

Keep in mind that headhunters don’t actually do the hiring and recruiters are paid salaries + benefits to work in house.

Looking to recruit? Which is better for you?

If you find yourself yearning for company culture, an internal team to thrive with, and watching your candidates grow into amazing employees, recruiting is right for you. Here is a ClearanceJobs partner that has a recruiter opening in DC.

Alternatively, if you love the fast-paced pressure of finding someone quickly, like to fly solo through the sourcing process, or want to support multiple companies at one time, headhunting sounds about right for you. Here is a ClearanceJobs staffing agency that fills positions in DC.

BUT… don’t forget that you can do both! At a lot of points through my career in recruitment, I worked in house at a defense contracting company full-time but supported boutique staffing agencies as a 1099 (most of the time before the holidays to make some extra cash!).

The world is your defense hiring oyster and there are so many opportunities out there for you, depending on your personal style. The silver lining of COVID-19 for anyone in this space is that you have not lost out on opportunities since recruiters / headhunters can essentially work anywhere.

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Katie Keller is a marketing fanatic that enjoys anything digital, communications, promotions & events. She has 8+ years in the DoD supporting multiple contractors with recruitment strategy, staffing augmentation, marketing, & communications. Favorite type of beer: IPA. Fave hike: the Grouse Grind, Vancouver, BC. Fave social platform: ClearanceJobs! 🇺🇸