Security cleared recruiting continues to be a challenge, and 2023 is poised to be the toughest year yet. Evan Lesser, founder and president of ClearanceJobs.com unpacks the macro and micro aspects of the security clearance hiring marketplace. While the number of individuals with a clearance is growing, the world of work is changing. Remote work and the great resignation have created market dynamics where the number of security clearance holders overall is higher – but there may not necessarily be the same number of workers interested in pursuing national security careers.
When it comes to the security clearance process, when it comes to the marketplace and community of cleared professionals, Evan really is an expert on that. And anybody who’s had the opportunity to hear Evan brief or talk, which is something he regularly does for ClearanceJobs customers, he really has a handle on the market dynamics affecting the cleared workforce. And I think that’s why when you look at ClearanceJobs, it’s really grown as a great community for cleared professionals because he has such insight into the market realities facing folks in the national security workforce.
So, since it’s 2023, we’re starting a new year, I thought it would be a great time to chat with Evan a little bit about the security clearance marketplace. You talked a little bit, towards the end of the year, Evan, about how this could be the hardest year yet in security clearance hiring, which obviously makes anybody listening to this, who works in security clearance hiring, a little nervous because 2022, the years prior have certainly been challenging. So what market realities have led to you to even get a little bit more anticipatory for what we’re facing in the year to come?
Yeah. And thanks for the introduction, Lindy. I think it’s not hyperbole to say that this year is going to be the toughest year for security cleared recruiting, and we definitely don’t make that proclamation without a lot of forethought.
So we’ve been in the cleared recruiting business for a little over 20 years, and we’re always taking a look at these different factors that come into play and try to figure out it’s going to be a candidate’s market, it’s going to be an employer’s market. What are the micro and macro factors that we have to take a look at? And honestly, towards the end of 2022, we started seeing everything kind of come into alignment that had us a bit worried, and that’s really why we’ve kind of made that declaration that this year is going to be the hardest.
And the factors that have come into play, it’s kind of like a puzzle being put together, and when you see the whole picture you kind of get it. But some of those puzzle pieces are, first is the supply and demand of cleared professionals. So the supply of DOD-cleared people is roughly 4.7 million, and that is the one bright point. So if you think back to a number of years ago, when was the last time DOD claimed 4.7 million security cleared people? It was roughly 2012, 2013 or so. And the numbers went down year after year. And thankfully, we’ve seen the trend over the last couple years of those numbers picking up. There’s definitely a discrepancy about the number of people who are in access versus out of access. But when we take a look at the overall population of cleared people, 4.7 million is the one bright spot.
The problem is that the world of work is changing. More and more people are wanting to work from home, which is definitely difficult in our industry. More and more people are retiring or retiring early. An increasing number of workers are deciding to kind of make ends meet by doing a lot of small jobs rather than one single traditional employer. So the world of work is changing and that’s definitely having an impact.
Another thing that’s come into play is the demand for cleared people is just off the charts. Take a look at the DOD budget. It is a record DOD budget, which means record contracts going out, which means record demand for security cleared people. So the demand for cleared professionals is far outpacing the supply of cleared talent.
Another issue that we’ve been taking a look at, another piece of the puzzle is the fact that when we survey cleared professionals, we found out that more than half of cleared workers, 53%, are either likely or very likely to change jobs in the next year. So candidates understand that they’re in control of this market. They understand that they can hop employers and usually get a bump in salary, and they’re definitely taking advantage of that. So those backfills are also creating a lot of demand.
To wrap up, we also take a look at clearance processing times. Kudos to the government. They’ve made great strides at reducing the number of days for a final end-to-end secret and top secret clearance. Last time I looked at the numbers was, I guess, around Q3. It was around 95 days for a secret and 121 days for a top secret. And those numbers are improved, which is great, but they’re still not low enough for most employers to take advantage of them.
Last but not least, the number of workers that are employed. The survey that we recently did of security cleared professionals showed that 92% of security cleared workers label themselves as employed. Now, they are passively interested in open opportunities, but that means that only 8% of security cleared workers said that they’re unemployed and actively looking. Put the puzzle together and you can see all these factors are coming into play to make 2023 the most difficult year ever for security cleared recruiting.
We are on kind of this, I don’t know, this steady shift, too. I remember we used to have the dynamic where we had more candidates, more recession timeframe. It’s getting harder and harder to remember that, and I’m not sure if we’ll ever get back to that dynamic. I don’t see a shift happening that really makes things “better” or the hiring process easier.
I do like to reminisce in our 20 years of being in this industry and covering security cleared recruiting, and the 20 years that ClearanceJobs has been around. And there are certain points that stick out as being maybe kind of normal. But it seems like this industry is either feast or famine. It’s either black or white. 2013 was the last time I can remember in which it was the market was flipped.
So in 2013, don’t forget, there was definitely factors in place that kind of flipped things. So there were lots and lots and lots of candidates in 2013. There was a sequester, there were budget woes. But in 2013 there were lots of candidates and not nearly enough jobs to fill them. Now it’s the exact opposite. And it seems like this industry is just always going to the extreme. There’s never a normal.
I guess if I had to think about a semi-normal time period, maybe 2016 or so, there was at least somewhat of a balance between the number of open jobs and the number of available candidates. But it seems like, for the most part, yeah, it’s either feast or famine, black or white. It’s one extreme going to the next, and that’s where we’re at right now. So I agree with you. I don’t see anything on the horizon that would state it’s ever going to get back to “normal,” or it’s going to ever get back to being an employer’s market. I think this current dynamic is going to last for some time period.
Yeah, I think that the rollercoaster analogy that you’ve used at ClearanceJobs becomes more and more the norm, because I think it is just a kind of a volatile market and you can be doing maybe somewhat okay as a company or even an agency, but you really need to stay engaged and stay active.
And that’s one of the great things about ClearanceJobs. So as a platform that helps enable hiring for both companies and government agencies and for candidates to find and connect with positions and careers and grow their career networks, the brand and the company has really been committed to innovating as a platform, which is not always the case for the government hiring process, as we kind of tend to see and cover and write about.
Clearly, you’re focused on security clearance hiring, but you’re not just kind of following the default of maybe the government saying, “Hey, we have to take what we get,” or only the strong survive in the application process. Why do you think it’s important, even for the government, in hiring for personnel that really care about innovating in talent management and attraction?
I think it’s mostly because of this extreme imbalance between supply and demand. If things were more normal, then normal rules would apply. But the more extreme the supply and demand imbalance gets, the more that employers have to change their tactics in order to attract and engage and hire security cleared professionals.
And I’ll give you an example. If 92% of security cleared people that we poll on ClearanceJobs are already employed, fairly happy in the work, fairly happy with their pay, but they are willing to listen to employers about new opportunities, that means that every time that an employer finds a security cleared professional, more than eight out of 10 cleared candidates are going to say, “I’m already employed. Why should I talk to you? Why should I listen to you? What are you going to offer me?” So it’s really kind of turned things on end.
And one of the things that we’ve really pushed on heavily over the last year, and we’ll be doing this year, is branding. And you think about the fact that if most candidates are already employed, what’s it going to take to convert a candidate from just considering an open position to actually applying for it? What we have kind of found out through our research is that there’s four factors that will help move a candidate from considering a job to actually converting and actually applying for it.
And those four things are culture, reputation, the employer’s compensation plan, and what type of advancement can happen at that employer. And regardless of whether it’s a government agency or a federal contracting firm or a search firm or a college and university that has cleared positions, they all have to try to think about, from a candidate’s perspective, what’s going to make that passive candidate, which is the vast majority of candidates, what’s going to make them actually say, “You know what? I’m willing to spend the time to fill out this job application form and I’m willing to spend the time to start to invest in this.” And if an employer can think about culture, reputation, compensation, advancement, and start to answer those branding questions for candidates, that’s how they’re going to get candidates to convert.
I love that you mentioned that and that was a key point I wanted to make and talk about. Because you’ve touched so much on employer branding over the past several years, and I don’t see a lot of founders and presidents of companies doing that. How did you get the insight to say, “Hey, this is something that, even from my level within the organization, I need to be talking about branding and pushing that out to customers and folks in our space”? What tipped your hat, I guess, to say, “Hey, yes, employer branding is key and I need to educate on this”?
Sure. And we’ll definitely come back to innovation in just a second because how you convey employer branding to candidates, it definitely matters. So the mechanism that you actually get the branding out absolutely matters. It’s not just the fact that content is king, the delivery of that content is really important as well.
But what kind of tipped our hat to this is we saw the writing on the wall and we understood that if the vast majority of candidates are passive, that it would take employers, recruiters, and recruiting teams work to convert those passive candidates. And one of the things that we did back in 2021, that’s really kind of changed our perspective on this, is that we did a lot of research around converting audiences. And not just in recruiting, but in other areas too.
And we took a hard look at retail sales. And it was really interesting in 2021, because retail sales were down. Granted, there was we’re coming out of the pandemic, or the pandemic, I guess in 2021, was still in full swing, but things were starting to wind down. But there were talks of recession, people were not buying as much. And when we took a look at retail sales, we found a huge amount of parallels between converting a buyer who’s considering a product and converting a candidate who’s considering a new open role.
And there are definitely factors you have to take a look at. And when we took a look at retail sales, we found that if you could really focus in on that consideration phase, you are going to be much more likely to convert a passive person, who may be interested in a product or service, to actually buy that product or service. Same for recruiting. If you’ve got a candidate who’s kind of considering an open position, that’s where you’re going to lose them if you don’t really invest in branding to the point where you can convert them.
So we were thinking a whole lot about how to move candidates beyond consideration and conversion. And when we talked to cleared candidates, especially that were passive, we found out that they had four questions that they wanted answered before they would move and actually apply for a job. So the first is culture, and that answers the question, “Am I going to fit in with this organization?” And every candidate asks that question. Maybe not in those terms, but they definitely ask it. And culture, and will I fit into this company, can be addressed by things like diversity and inclusion, how fast your organization speed of change. What are your business ethics? What’s your work-life balance? What’s the actual physical workplace like? What’s the company philosophy?
The second is reputation. And reputation answers that question that every single candidate has, especially in the cleared world, where they ask, “Is this employer legitimate?” And you can answer that question by focusing on things like reviews and rankings of your company, awards and recognition, financials, press releases, senior leadership.
The third is compensation, and that answers the very elemental question that every candidate has, “Am I going to get paid fairly? Am I going to be compensated fairly at this employer?” And regardless of whether you’re a government agency or a large or small contracting firm or a college and university with a government contract, you could focus in on things like salary, benefits, profit share, perks, retirement, reimbursements.
Last but not least is advancement. Every candidate asks themselves, before they will actually apply for a position, “Am I going to actually grow at this employer?” And the way that you address that question is you focus on professional development and what technologies your employer uses, company outlook, career growth, and things of that nature.
So just by addressing those four things in your employer branding, that’s how you’re going to move a candidate beyond consideration. That’s how you’re going to get them to convert and actually apply for the job. And the more creative you are in your branding, and Linda, you know about this better than anybody else, you can’t just throw out a banner ad and hope for the best. You can’t just throw out an article and hope for the best or some type of messaging. You really have to have a concerted creative effort around the information you put out there, and that’s how you’re going to get people to convert.
I love all of that. You’re speaking my love language here. But I wanted to tie back, because you talked about the mechanism too. And so, I want to definitely give you time to touch on that, because that obviously is near and dear to my heart because we did have this, I think ClearanceJobs was totally ahead of the curve, you were totally ahead of the curve in terms of building out content as being a key driver for a brand. We’ve seen a lot of other companies, organizations pick that up. But like you said, it’s not necessarily just creating content, because we do have such a plethora of content now. Even, this is a big issue in the veteran transition community, we went from having not a ton of career resources for veterans to almost having too many folks who don’t even know the resources out there. So why is the mechanism important [inaudible 00:14:48] the medium?
So there’s three things that you have to take a look at when you do branding. And I know I’m preaching at the choir here, but this is for the audience. First, you have to take a look at the message. Second, you have to take a look at the method or mechanism. Third, you have to take a look at the targeting.
So the message is incredibly important. And this is where content is king, but it’s not necessarily just throwing out piece after piece after piece. You really have to tweak the message to the audience that you’re trying to attract. One thing I will mention is that the more, I don’t know, I guess the best way to put it is that if all of your messages are strictly job announcements, you’re going to fall flat. 92% of candidates are passive and already employed. Think about those folks because that’s the vast majority of who you’re targeting. If every message they see is, “Come apply for this job, come apply for this job, come apply for this job,” it’s going to quickly go in one ear and out the other or in one eye and out the other or whatever it may be.
So you really want your messages to be focusing in on what I would call the soft sell. The hard sell is the job offer. The soft sell is going to be things like getting to know a certain team, getting to know a certain location, understanding more about the company, the corporate philosophy, what drives it, what motivates it, talking to your leadership, talking about your hiring process, talking about your work-life balance, diversity and inclusion efforts, what’s it like to work at the company? Those are much softer, and that’s going to be a much better way to create a message that’s going to draw people in. If you can do something different in terms of messaging, that’s what’s going to attract people. So that’s the message.
The second is the method or the mechanism that you deliver that message. And traditionally, everyone has focused on the stuff that worked 10 years ago, email notifications, banner ads, and things like that. Even those mechanisms are kind of getting long in the tooth. These days, what is resonating more are live events, sharing an experience with a candidate. And that could be a webinar, a guest speaker, a book club, a shared sporting event, a shared gaming event, some type of shared activity. Live events are definitely where it’s at. Pre-recorded is okay, but live definitely has more engagement. Thinking about content like a podcast, video content, photo montage, animated gifs, funny, interesting, engaging content. That’s the kind of stuff, those are the kind of delivery mechanism that’s going to make people kind of sit up and take notice.
And then third, after message and mechanism, is targeting. These days, targeting is absolutely critical because every email platform has artificial intelligence and is smart enough to know spam when it comes in. Every candidate now has the ability to block someone who’s sending a message if that message is not targeted. So think back to 7, 8, 9 years ago, it was all about how many people can I blast my message to? These days, it’s all about how much can I target my message?
And if you think about current marketing systems, it’s all about targeting. So 50 targeted candidates or 500 targeted candidates is far better than 50,000 or 5,000 untargeted. Because as soon as you send a message that’s not targeted to a candidate, they’re either going to block you or artificial intelligence will block the message before they even see it. Message, method, and targeting are the three things that employers who are doing recruitment branding want to focus in on.
Yeah. Well, and I love that you highlight that because the targeting is key in the national security space. As you talked about, the supply and demand issues, I think a lot of the recruiters and hiring managers know that there’s just only so many folks with that skillset. So it is a total waste of your time to try to be targeting a group that’s outside of that.
So I want to talk a little bit about the government hiring process. So obviously Federal News radio, we know we have a demographic of folks who are tied to the federal space. I always like to highlight USAJOBS is out there, obviously, but not every government job is posted on USAJOBS. One of the things I’ve loved seeing is that ClearanceJobs is really growing in the number of government agencies and folks that are using ClearanceJobs to source for talent. Why is that important in the government to not just do the post and pray thing and just be posting their jobs on USAJOBS. What options are out there through sites like ClearanceJobs?
Yeah. And that’s a great point. Think about it. The current dynamic is that the vast majority of people with clearance are already employed. How many people that are already employed want to sit and fill out a gigantic job application form, knowing that, historically, filling out job application forms, they didn’t hear back from anybody? So there’s definitely an imbalance. And I think one of the problems with job application is that you’re kind of having to go around from first base to home plate in one shot. A job application is you raising your hand and saying, “I want this job.” But if most candidates are passive and employed, they may be interested in a job, but they may not be willing to go all the way around.
So a couple of things that we’ve done on ClearanceJobs is that we’ve made it easier for employers, government agencies, recruiting firms, recruiters, to connect and just start talking with candidates, to do that soft sell, to see if the candidates are interested enough to actually engage with the recruiter more directly.
So I think government agencies and contracting firms really have to be focused on that soft sell and be focused on things that will get a candidate to the application phase. And application is far down the chain. What you want to do first is you need to get candidates to trust you first. Then you need to get candidates talking to you. Then you need to learn more about the candidate and figure out what’s going to push their buttons, what’s going to actually make them spend the time to apply.
So I think that’s the reason that USAJOBS, there’s a bit of a disconnect between what USAJOBS asks people do, which is apply for jobs, and the fact that most candidates are already employed and not interested in going through that job application process. So ClearanceJobs kind of bridges that gap.
One of the things that we are launching, in just a number of weeks on the ClearanceJobs marketplace, is something called Expressed Interest. And that is going to directly allow candidates, on every single job posting out there, with one click to simply raise their hand and let the employer or recruiter behind that job know that that candidate is interested in talking more. So it’s a signal. It’s essentially them raising their hand and saying, “Hey, check me out. I’m interested in the position. I may not be ready to apply for the job yet, but I’m definitely interested and want to talk further.”
So we’re very excited about Expressed Interest, and I think it’s going to be another tool in the arsenal that both government agencies and defense contracting firms can use to gauge a candidate’s interest and figure out who they should be talking to. So it’s definitely all about innovation and trying to take things to the next step, because until this marketplace shifts and there are more active job seekers, job applications are just not going to be the way to engage, attract, and hire candidates.
I love it. Yeah, I think if USAJOBS had even a 10th of the capability of ClearanceJobs.com, our federal hiring market would certainly be different. So government agencies out there who have those hiring authorities and options and who aren’t using ClearanceJobs, it seems like a no-brainer to me, and I’m looking forward to the day when they bring us on to consult and overhaul the USAJOBS system, Evan.
Seriously. Yeah, it’s time. It’s got to be overhauled, because if an employer thinks like they did 10 years ago, they’re going to come up short.