For highly technical, clearance-required jobs, lots of openings but not enough candidates


Dana McLee from TASC talks with a prospective recruit at an expo for engineering, technology and defense jobs. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)
December 14, 2011

Dana McLee isn’t interested in the candidates advertising on online job boards or attending the usual career fairs. She doesn’t follow Monster.com or conventional networking groups for jobseekers.

Those avenues aren’t going to result in hires for the senior-level, highly technical, clearance-required intelligence jobs that McLee needs to fill for TASC, a Chantilly-based contractor.

So, McLee comes up with her own techniques. She goes to niche job fairs for qualified applicants, she pumps employees and leads for referrals, and she uses sophisticated online searches to comb the Web for the resumes of professionals with security clearances.

Welcome to the world of companies that are hiring.

TASC is among a group of local businesses eagerly trying to fill spots but, despite higher-than-normal unemployment figures, facing a competitive market. These recruiters find themselves competing with similar firms for experienced talent with coveted clearances that allow them to work on some of the government’s most secretive programs.

[See full Post 200 coverage of TASC here.]

McLee is perfectly suited for the work. Bubbly and friendly, she greets jobseekers with a broad smile and a handshake. Unlike other recruiters at job fairs, McLee, the consummate professional in a pants suit and fresh lipstick, makes sure to introduce herself to and ask questions of each person.

She needs every bit of that charm in her world, where recruiters are battling for employees that in most cases already have jobs. This requires tracking candidates down — rather than waiting for them to come to you — and making a convincing case for your company’s career opportunities, benefits or other desired perks such as tuition assistance. And there’s no guarantee you’ve succeeded until that person starts work, said Dorion Baker, who oversees TASC’s intelligence recruiting.

“A recruiter shouldn’t start celebrating [until] the person’s butt is in the seat,” he said.

Virtually all of the company’s intelligence spots require a security clearance. The government estimates about 4.2 million people have the clearances, which come in different levels and can only be obtained with sponsorship from a government agency or approved contractor. Clearances typically take six months to obtain but the process can take longer.

ClearanceJobs.com, a Web site that provides contractors and federal agencies a centralized way to find candidates, has about 7,500 open positions listed on the site at any time, said Evan Lesser, managing director of the site. But there are likely many more spots available, he said. Some clients, unable to post jobs because of security concerns, instead search the database, which includes 438,000 registered cleared professionals.

These days, TASC’s recruiting office is humming as the company seeks to add staff to defense, intelligence and civilian programs and to compete for proposals.

Take Michael Pollino, a recruiter for a classified intelligence program that he can’t identify because of government restrictions. The program is so big that it consumes all of his time; at any given moment, there are 150 to 200 open spots, all of which require clearances.

Pollino receives potential candidates from a range of sources — some candidates apply, others are located by recruiters at job fairs or off the Web, and headhunters bring in still more. He vets them to make sure they fit the openings, and then schedules interviews with the program office.

Pollino brings in six to eight candidates a week, and then passes them on for an interview with Susan Fitzgerald, who represents the program management office. If Fitzgerald gives them the okay, they’re given a contingent offer and advanced to the government officials overseeing the program. That step is not standard, but it’s required for some programs.

“Everyone’s targeting the same pool of talent,” said Pollino. “So we’re all kind of chasing the same people.”

Even as government spending shrinks and some contractors warn of tighter times, there’s no evidence that the specialized workforce TASC seeks will be shrinking. The company has said it plans to hire about 1,000 people in 2012.

Its recruiters acknowledge the contractor sometimes has a larger challenge than other firms; spun off from Northrop Grumman in late 2009, TASC is still working to cement its brand and make itself well-known.

Fortunately for Pollino, his program is flexible and gives him the latitude to pay for some of the more expensive candidates on the market.

For most recruiters in this competitive market, it’s about being creative. McLee prides herself on figuring out innovative ways to track the best candidates.

In TASC’s Chantilly headquarters, she puts together complex strings of search terms that help her zero in on the resumes and profiles of high-ranking intelligence executives. McLee strings together search terms like “bio,” “profile” and “resume” with “cleared” and area codes like “703,” “202” and “301” to track local candidates. She subtracts words like “jobs” and “ads” to weed out traditional job sites. When she finds a search string that works especially well, McLee e-mails it out to her coworkers so they can use it.

She’ll look for guest speakers at conferences or ask TASC employees about co-workers at previous employers they’d recommend. Baker stays on top of local news, watching for companies that may be laying off employees, making an acquisition or relocating offices — all changes that can prompt employees to consider other options.

McLee, who started at the staffing agency Career Blazers in 1997 but eventually transferred from headhunting to corporate recruiting in 2004, draws a sense of accomplishment from luring attractive candidates. At Career Blazers, recruiters would ring a bell when they snagged a key hire, and McLee said she still gets that charge when she hits the jackpot at TASC.

But she said her job is really about building relationships and credibility that help her win recommendations from other employees and maintain relationships with potential hires. In one case, she recruited a candidate who had been referred by a TASC hire. He came in to speak with company officials, but ultimately decided he wasn’t ready to leave his job. Six months later, he came back and now works for TASC.

Baker encourages recruiters to take the long view. He sent out a Samuel Johnson quote to the staff earlier this year: “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”

At a career fair held at The Washington Post’s downtown headquarters earlier this month, McLee adopted that credo. Of the roughly 100 people she and Pollino had spoken with that day, she only saw one that met her clearance requirements.

But she and Pollino planned to take the stack of resumes they collected — many with their notes about the person’s specialties and possible program fits — back to the rest of the staff, where they would be culled by recruiters looking to fill other spots.

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