With layoffs up and pay down, contracting employers may now have upper hand

February 24, 2013

As large contractors from Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin to McLean-based Booz Allen Hamilton make cuts, there are signs that government contracting employees are facing a significantly less attractive job market.

The leverage in hiring may be shifting to employers, as some small companies see more opportunity to recruit workers with big-company experience, and average salaries for cleared employees drop.

A new study by ClearanceJobs.com, a Web site that provides security-cleared job candidates to contractors and federal agencies, found that total compensation for cleared professionals, including government and contractor workers, declined to $88,447 in 2012. The figure, which includes salaries and additional earnings, represented a 3 percent decline year over year; contractor compensation dropped by a smaller percentage, but the dip marked the first reduction since 2009.

Just two years ago, “candidates had their pick of jobs ... They could generally call the shots and name their salary,” said Evan Lesser, founder and managing director of the site. “Now the opposite side of supply and demand is in effect ... It’s a very different atmosphere.”

Much of the decline was attributed to a drop in starting salaries, as security-cleared workers who were new to their employer in 2012 saw their average compensation drop 8 percent, according to the study.

The weakening compensation suggests a new flexibility for those companies that are still seeking to hire employees with security clearances.

In the past, “it was very common to see companies advertising ... hiring bonuses and talking about immediate 401k vesting and all sorts of great benefits,” said Lesser. “We haven’t heard about anything like that in a while.”

A growing number of applicants

Some smaller companies are hoping the upheaval results in opportunity. McLean-based NuWave Solutions has about 40 positions available, mostly hard-to-fill technical jobs.

The company has been keeping a close eye on the bigger companies, following who they’re laying off and whether these employees could be potential job candidates, said Brad Hubbard, NuWave’s chief operating officer.

Emily Coates of ExFederal.com, a job board targeted at workers with federal experience, said volume on the site is up considerably. About 30 percent more than the typical number of people are signing up.

Fairfax-based contractor ICF International, too, reported that the size of its applicant pools have increased.

Still, there is sometimes a discrepancy between the kinds of jobs recruiters are hoping to fill and the candidates seeking a position.

For instance, many contractors have been reducing their administrative staff, the kind of people who handle tasks such as accounting or hiring, rather than those who complete billable work. Most contractors are trying to reduce their overhead costs, making it harder for these employees to find new options.

For job seekers, “the competition is getting tougher,” said Ginger Groeber, who founded ExFederal. “People really have to have the best backgrounds to be the ones that are picked up for jobs.”

Jim Lawler, chief human resources officer at Chantilly-based Tasc, said the uncertainty in the industry is creating more movement among employees.

“When things get harder, when expenses get tight ... people start to look around and think the grass is greener somewhere else,” he said. “If you do have a key position to fill, it’s a good time to be doing so.”

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