http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A4598-2003May17.html By Amy Joyce Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, May 19, 2003 As the technology downturn accelerated in October 2000, WamNet Government Services Inc. in Herndon received some great news: It won a seven-year, $7 billion subcontract from Electronic Data Systems Corp. to help design, build and operate the Navy and Marine Corps intranet. The only problem was that the 20-person company would have to hire more than 700 new employees, all with security clearances. That job is proving to be as much of a challenge as creating a secure intranet for the military. "It's a daunting task for a small firm," said Michael J. Barbee, WamNet's president, who will be constantly searching for more qualified employees until the seven-year contract is complete. With the demands created by the federal effort to improve homeland security, the worldwide war on terrorism, and the need to lock down even the most ordinary government offices, more employers than ever are looking for recruits who already have federal clearances. But just as during the dot-com recruiting boom of the late 1990s, government, technical and defense firms now are aggressively seeking and competing against each other for qualified candidates. "There's a huge shortage, and there's a backlog of people waiting to get their clearances," said Palmer Suk, president of Snelling Personnel Services, a recruiting firm in Vienna. "I'd say we have a need every moment for those types of people. If I have the top security- cleared people, it would be a matter of a handful of phone calls before you have an interview set up for them. Demand is so much higher than supply." But there's a Catch-22 quality to the hot job market. To get hired, you have to have clearance. To get clearance, you have to be hired. The conundrum is as tricky for employers as employees. Here's how it works: An applicant for a federal security clearance, whether confidential, secret, top secret or sensitive, must already be employed at a government agency or contractor. The employer files paperwork that states the background check will be performed, and then sends it on to be processed and adjudicated. The procedure can take several months to a year, depending on the level of clearance and the length of the backlog. Currently, there are 237,816 security clearance applications pending at the Defense Security Service, the agency that handles clearances. Some employees at WamNet are hired as clearable, but do not yet have clearance. Those employees work on assignments that do not need security clearances, until their paperwork goes through. The number of clearances has gone up substantially since Sept. 11, 2001. Many clearances are held by the military. But there were 107,513 requests for clearances from industry from October 2000 through September 2001. That increased by about 40,000 the next year. The number of requests from October 2002 to April 2003 was 86,727. The attempt to find cleared workers for companies so desperate for them is "a shell game," Suk said. Even if a company successfully hires an employee with the proper clearances, it's likely that person left another company that will have to fill a clearance-required job. So companies are getting creative. Some, like Northrop Grumman Corp., are starting a practice of acquiring smaller companies that are filled with cleared employees. "When they buy that company, they buy that capability," said Bruce Phinney, a vice president who runs the critical infrastructure practice with search firm Paul-Tittle Search Group in McLean. Companies are hiring search firms to seek out the right employees, and offering bonuses to those employees who refer a friend with the right clearance. Other companies hire employees with minimal clearance, with the hopes of getting them clearance at the higher level that the employer really needs. Much like the companies that tried to make up for lost business when the tech boom went bust, search firms have begun to focus extensively on government contracts and clearances. Paul-Tittle has been in business since 1974, with a major focus on the commercial sector. With jobless rates reaching 6 percent, there are plenty of clients. But, Phinney added, the "tremendous backlog" for security clearances is what is keeping employers from good employees. "Corporations are clamoring to get people of this ilk. It's not that they're not out there, it's just cumbersome," Phinney said. WamNet, founded in 1994 as a wholly owned subsidiary of WamNet Inc. in Eagan, Minn., was formed to handle networks for federal agencies. WamNet's job now is to network the infrastructure for about 310,000 computers on 300 Navy and Marine bases. WamNet doubled in size last year. The company needs to have about 420 people in place for the contract at the end of this year, and it is about halfway there. But the hiring is done in small numbers: January brought 35 new employees, 50 came on board in February, 79 arrived in March, 72 in April, and 22 thus far in May. Barbee said the company was and still is on a constant search for Cisco-certified network engineers. Which, said Barbee, is a "pretty small community. And put security clearance on top of that, it's even smaller." Ten percent of WamNet's new hires are military, who already have clearances. The company is recruiting as much as possible in and around military organizations, job fairs and in military publications. But once the wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq started, those who were set to retire and perhaps think about a job at a place like WamNet were pulled back into the service. John Heller, program manager in charge of the ramp-up, decided at the beginning of the year that WamNet needed to hire professional recruiters. The company started with three this year, and now has eight. Heller himself was hired to work on the new hiring. Every day, Heller checks in with the recruiters for a count of hires, potential hires and new résumés. The biggest source of new employees comes through Internet job sites such as Monster.com and HotJobs. Those and other job sites are relatively simple to search for the right employees, because résumés that mention security clearances are easy for a recruiter to find. The other huge source of employees is through personal references. When one person is hired, he or she usually has a friend or two who also are cleared and may be interested in a new contract. To encourage those personal referrals, employees can earn $2,000 to $3,000 for each referral that is hired at WamNet. "That gets a buzz in the company because that's real money," said Barbee. And because of the need to attract and retain good employees, the firm is willing to change itself. Barbee said once candidates started to turn down offers, company officials began to ask why. They realized they were losing candidates because they did not offer to match employees' 401(k) retirement plan contributions. "I thought we were too small for that," he said. Instead, the company looked at its benefits, and decided some needed to be enhanced. Heller said the company gets 20 to 100 résumés for any position. But once candidates are screened, there are usually just one or two who end up being "very qualified." On what was a typical day in early spring, Heller sat in on a conference call with WamNet recruiters in Minnesota. When a new base that needs to be hooked up to the intranet comes online, new jobs open up. This day, the recruiters chatted about the Norfolk Network Operations Center, and how many jobs were open, how many offers went out, and how many new résumés had come to their attention. The company had 180 positions open that particular day, 18 at the operations center. The best news from the meeting was that eight offers were out to potential hires for the center. "This is a much bigger task than anyone anticipated," Barbee said. - ISN is currently hosted by Attrition.org To unsubscribe email email@example.com with 'unsubscribe isn' in the BODY of the mail.
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