Security clearance, experience, and the right certifications

13.05.19 08:43 AM By Client Outreach

Even before Geronimo Moreno retired from the Air Force in March, the LinkedIn messages started rolling in.

He served for 20 years, working first as an electrician and later in network management and information system security. Moreno, 38, had a top-secret clearance before he left the military, as well as several high-level cybersecurity certifications — which is why he received all those messages. Recruiters peppered him with requests for his résumé and sent him notices of job postings.


“I had a lot of options,” Moreno said. He took a job as director of client outreach at Dynamic Advancement, a training organization at Port San Antonio started by a fellow Air Force veteran, but the messages haven’t stopped.


Military contractors are desperate to land employees with Moreno’s kind of bona fides. People with security clearance and certifications are a catch — and a necessity — for companies such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and P3I that need them for contracts.


“They’re a very valuable commodity to the defense contractors,” said Roger Goudreau, vice president of operations at Massachusetts-based contractor P3I. “They can retire one day and be in a new job the next day if they have the skills we’re looking for.”


They’re also attractive to government organizations such as the National Security Agency, which operates the Texas Cryptology Center on the West Side, as well as technology firms, which prize their experience and technical skills even if they don’t need employees with security clearances.


On a recent weekday, more than 40,000 positions were listed on ClearanceJobs.com, a job board for people with security clearances, with more than 400 in the San Antonio area. The average total compensation for those with clearance rose to $93,004 last year, according to a report by the website.


The competition for these workers has intensified as companies grapple with a backlog in government-issued security clearances and a shortage of workers in the rapidly evolving world of cybersecurity.


While employers with operations here battle each other for workers, out-of-town companies come to San Antonio to recruit for their offices elsewhere, said Ali Bokhari, a managing director at Accenture Federal Services’ Advanced Technology Center. Filling midlevel roles is especially difficult.


“We are competing against companies in San Antonio but really the entire state of Texas, if not the country,” Bokhari said.


Defense spending is a boom to the regional economy. Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland contributed $30.37 billion, at minimum, to the state’s economy in 2017, according to a study by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. A 2011 report by San Antonio’s Economic Development Department found that more than 45,000 people were working on Department of Defense contracts at the time — the most recent number available. Former military personnel with experience, skills and security clearances are a time- and money-saver for contractors.


“It’s a shortcut,” said David Hathaway, general manager of Lockheed Martin’s San Antonio office and Spectrum Convergence business development lead. “It certainly allows us to be more responsive to the government.” Veterans’ background and technical skills are also “extremely valuable,” he added. Lockheed employed more than 22,000 veterans company wide as of December and hired more than 3,500 last year. Veterans understand clients’ work, said Chris Kinne, who leads business development for Raytheon’s Defense Department cyberwarfare programs. “They’re very well-trained, and they bring operational experience and knowledge of customers’ missions,” Kinne said. “(Veterans) help us deliver a better-quality product.” Some active-duty military men and women are looking to bolster their job prospects while still serving.


As personnel advance through the ranks, they often move into management positions that aren’t as hands-on, said Kekai Namauu, an Air Force veteran and president of Dynamic Advancement. That can be a drawback when they leave the service, if a company is worried they don’t have the technical skills. Before Namauu retired, he started earning certifications.“I think you’re going to get a lot of people just coming in to get the good training, get the clearance and then get out,” Namauu said.


Security clearances at government agencies are usually confidential, secret and top-secret. A clearance typically remains active while an employee is working for a contractor or government agency and needs access to classified information, according to ClearanceJobs.com. Workers must also undergo re-investigations, which happen every five to 15 years, depending on the clearance level. A clearance becomes inactive when someone leaves the job they needed it for, the website notes. But it can be reinstated within two years, depending on the circumstances.


In the website’s 2018 compensation report, founder and President Evan Lesser attributed the increase in salaries to a bigger defense budget, low unemployment, a smaller pool of people with security clearances and a stockpile of cases awaiting clearance.


Some contracts require everyone working on a project to have a certain clearance level, Goudreau said. That includes engineers, program managers, specialists and administrative assistants. If they don’t have it, he said, they “can’t even be in the area.”


Efforts are underway to overhaul the approval process. In April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that, along with the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018, moves the handling of background investigations from the Office of Personnel Management, or OPM, to the Defense Department.


The Professional Services Council, which represents companies in the government technology and professional services industry, approved of the change. “This executive order is another important and necessary step in addressing the many issues still remaining with security clearances and suitability determinations across the entire federal government,” David Berteau, the council’s president and CEO, said in a statement.


At P3I, Goudreau said, he’s seen signs of progress recently, namely more background investigators visiting the firm’s corporate office for clearance work. But the wait can take months or even years — which is why former military personnel who have retained their clearances are in demand. Certifications and skills are as valuable, if not more so, than clearance, employees and executives say. 

After he transitioned out of the Air Force in August, Martin Jackson said the certifications he earned or renewed at Dynamic Advancement helped him find work. “The clearance will get you to the table,” said Jackson, who now works for Virginia-based consulting firm ICF in a position that requires a top-secret clearance. “The actual training and certifications help you get the job.” The certification credentials are a way to show employers that a candidate’s skills are up-to-date and that he or she has the technical prowess they’re looking for. “You try to say, ‘Hey, look, I worked on this system,’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we used that 10 years ago,’” Jackson said. “The certifications (are) the bridge to say, ‘Hey, look, yes ,this is old, but I’m still skilled.’”


The opportunity in the private sector to use new technologies appealed to Mark Stachowski, a U.S. Navy veteran who has worked for contractors as well as government agencies and nondefense private companies. He has an active secret clearance. Stachowski landed a job as a senior platform software engineer at USAA after participating in a program at Codeup, a technology boot camp in downtown San Antonio. He’s loving it so far.


Technological proficiency is crucial as cybersecurity continues changing, Bokhari said. “There is a talent gap for sure,” he said. There are “more open jobs out there than there are talented people ready to take on those jobs.”