As security clearance reviews drag, contractors change recruitment strategy

An increasingly sluggish security review process is forcing some recruiters, contractors and agencies to change the way they enlist new qualified, cleared candidates.

Turnover among cleared federal contractors is high, as frustration is mounting for job candidates, recruiters and agencies still stuck in limbo waiting for approval on their security clearances, according to a new survey of 152 recruiters from ClearanceJobs.com.

“Normally, one of the first things recruiters will say is that they don’t want to talk to somebody who has switched jobs within the last year,” Stephanie Benson, ClearanceJobs.com general manager, said.

But contractors, agencies and other employers are beginning to change their tune. About 61 percent of recruiters said they’ve changed their strategy to deal with increasingly slow clearance processing times. Roughly 69 percent of cleared employers say they’re likely to hire someone who has changed jobs within the past year, the survey said. And 47 percent of about 530 cleared job candidates have been at their current jobs for less than three years, a separate ClearanceJobs.com survey said.

Qualified candidates with clearances are churning through new jobs more quickly now because competition in the federal marketplace is so high, Benson said.

Agencies are handing out fewer security clearances now than they did in previous years. The cleared population topped roughly 4.25 million people by the end of fiscal 2015, a 6 percent drop from the previous year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said.

2015 was the second consecutive year government pared back its cleared population, after the Obama administration ordered that agencies cut their lists of employees and contractors who need a clearance to access classified information for their jobs.

As the cleared population has dwindled in recent years, the number of jobs in the federal marketplace has slowly increased, meaning agencies, contractors and recruiting organizations have fewer candidates to choose from, Benson said.

“If we could have filled the positions prior with only those with clearances, we would have, but the demand for high-level technology subject matter experts is so high and the pool is so small, we have to recruit candidates who do not have clearances,” one employer wrote. “Now every contractor is at war stealing each other’s employees, and this is going to negatively impact our government customer.”

To respond to the competition, many recruiters are using incentives they haven’t offered before to persuade potential candidates to accept their offers. 51 percent of recruiters said they’re using signing bonuses, while 78 percent said they used referral programs, the survey said.

Benson said she saw one employer include a $10,000 signing bonus in a job listing on ClearanceJobs for a malware/cybersecurity professional. Engineering positions often earn $5,000 in signing bonuses, she added.

“It’s harder to keep candidates interested while winding through the process,” another employer said.

The security clearance review process itself has noticeably slowed since the Office of Personnel Management took its Electronic Questionnaire for Investigations Processing (e-QIP) system offline following a major cyber breach last summer.

Benson said budget cuts also play a part, as agencies largely have fewer resources to pay for security clearance reviews.

How secure is your network? Share your opinions in a Federal News Radio survey.

As of March 2016, the administration had 8,858 overdue periodic reinvestigations left in the backlog, according to a second quarter update on Performance.gov, the most recent one available in 2016.

Processing times for initial secret and initial top secret security clearances are showing little progress, as investigation times continued to creep upward in the second quarter. Investigations on initial cases took an average of 128 days in the second quarter, compared to 92 days in the beginning of the year. Investigators spent an average of 180 days on top secret cases, compared to 178 days in the first quarter.

“Folks are just not returning calls and emails,” one employer said in the survey.

Though agencies may tell the federal hiring community that it takes three to seven months to process a security clearance application, Benson said she’s getting a different story.

“Anecdotally, we’re hearing from our recruiters it’s more like 12 months to 15 months,” she said. “It’s longer than what we’re hearing from the feds.”

One job candidate told ClearanceJobs.com that he had his interview with a background check investigator 15 months after he submitted an e-QIP form.

In the past, contractors pending background investigations often received interim clearances so they could begin work. But agencies are generally handing out fewer interim clearances now. According to Benson, 85 percent of recruiters said they were no longer bothering with interim clearances anymore. Instead, recruiters and employers are only looking for candidates who are cleared.

“OPM circulated a memo saying clearances are taking six months to a year to complete at minimum for those with no issues,” one candidate said in the survey. “It scared my hiring company and they are thinking of replacing me with someone who has a clearance.”

Another potential contractor accepted an offer from the Energy Department in May 2015. The candidate submitted an e-QIP in September of that year, had an interview with an investigator in October and then heard from his friends that clearance reviewers were beginning to interview them last winter. As of June of this year, the candidate hasn’t yet received a response.

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