Security clearances: The hottest ticket in town

When Orizon Inc., a small information technology services contractor, was working as a subcontractor on the FBI's Trilogy modernization program three years ago, it suddenly got an opportunity to show it was ready for bigger jobs.

The prime contractor, DynCorp. — since acquired by Computer Sciences Corp. — needed more help in deploying new systems at FBI offices worldwide. Company officials wanted up to 30 more Orizon employees to work for a year, but there was one catch — the employees had to have security clearances.

"We wanted to step up to the plate and show that we could do the job," said Michael McLean, Orizon's executive vice president. "Our only problem was that we didn't have a recruiting engine."

The small, disadvantaged business couldn't support a large human resources staff that understood the complexities of IT and security clearances. To know much about security clearances, a person often needs to have one. Getting security clearances for new employees can take up to two years, so that was out of the question. The work had to be done right away.

Orizon's solution was to turn to an IT staffing company, Comsys Information Technology Services Inc., which has a division specializing in employees with security clearances. The Secure IT division, headquartered in Rockville, Md., was launched in October 2003 to meet the need for security-cleared and government-savvy IT employees.

Since the Trilogy experience, Secure IT has provided staff for other federal contracts Orizon has bid on and won. Eventually, McLean said, the company will need a recruiting staff, but for now, they consider their relationship with Secure IT a valuable

partnership.

Orizon recently has grown dramatically. Annual growth rates during the past four years have averaged more than 200 percent, McLean said, adding that "Comsys has been an integral and important part of that growth."

Secure IT is not alone. Kelly Services Inc., whose staffers were once known as Kelly Girls, acquired FedSecure and formed Kelly FedSecure. Similar to Secure IT, Kelly FedSecure is a national company and mainly serves the IT services companies that win federal IT contracts. Both companies also supply temporary staff and permanent employees. And executives from both tout their narrow focus on the federal IT market, particularly sensitive and secure work.

These companies are prospering in their niche because of a severe shortage of IT professionals and other technical experts with security clearances. Although no official figures are available, it is believed that more than 400,000 applications for clearances are pending at the Defense Security Service and the Office of Personnel Management.

Because clearances can be sought only when an individual has a job that requires a clearance, it's safe to say that a substantial amount of systems work for agencies with national security missions is going undone. From the integrators' perspective, they are unable to bid for work or complete it promptly without the requisite human resources.

The situation is a seller's market for workers holding clearances. Kelly FedSecure and Secure IT seek out these qualified people at military bases, where they may be leaving the services, and at companies with expiring contracts. Once found, such prospective employees may enroll with one of the staffing companies, rather than an integrator or federal agency, to get choice job assignments, according to Richard Piske III, senior managing director of Kelly FedSecure.

An employee with a clearance is likely to cost 15 percent to

25 percent more than another individual with the same skills but no clearance, Piske said. For employees with the highest-level clearances — in industry jargon, the most tickets — the pay differential can be as great as 40 percent, said Gary Morris, managing director of Kelly FedSecure.

Nevertheless, integrators' pressing need for professionals

with clearances and their willingness to pay more for those people makes the new staffing industry niche particularly profitable, the executives said. And when Kelly Services acquired Fed-

Secure a few years ago, "Kelly saw FedSecure as one of the last frontiers in the staffing industry," Morris added.

Kelly FedSecure has a so-called facility clearance that enables its officials to learn more about federal job opportunities and the previous experience of potential workers than a company without clearance might be able to learn. With its clearance, company officials also can verify that job applicants actually have active security clearances before they place those people.

Morris said one reason the business prospers is that there is no central repository for employers and qualified employees to find mutual opportunities in this highly specialized field. However, a small dot-com company, ClearanceJobs.com, is trying to be just that — and its founders say that staffing companies are among their clients.

ClearanceJobs.com is a Web-based board similar to Monster.com or Yahoo! Inc.'s HotJobs.com, but only those individuals with active security clearances are supposed to post their résumés. Employers can post their openings, too.

Evan Lesser, a co-founder of ClearanceJobs.com, said this month that the company had 12,000 candidates in its database, which he described as the largest and freshest of any company specializing in secure job placement. Some of those candidates are not actively looking for work, but they sometimes can be attracted to a new job by better pay or other inducements.

ClearanceJobs.com had its genesis when Lesser worked for a systems integrator in the Crystal City office complex in Virginia. His job was to recruit employees with clearances for work that the company needed to do right away. "I said to myself that there's got to be another way to do this," he said. The online service was born in 2002, and because of its low operating costs, "the company was profitable from Day One," Lesser said.

An online service with an existing pool of résumés has an advantage when federal contractors are losing money each day a job goes unfilled, Lesser said. "They need candidates yesterday," he said.

Nevertheless, clearances for some agencies, such as the Homeland Security Department, are more complicated, according to Scott Hastings, chief information officer for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program.

"When somebody comes on a task we operate, we don't just look at a name, we look at a résumé," he said. "Just because it's cleared doesn't mean it's a pass. But we would hold the prime contractor responsible for staffing it appropriately."

Ferris is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase, Md. She can be reached at ferrisn@att.net.

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