INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

With Skills (and Clearance), You'll Choose Your Job

Michael Gagnon is a computer  science student at George Mason University.  He is graduating in May and is weighing an offer from MIT as well as job offers from area defense contractors who are desperate to fill slots.
Michael Gagnon is a computer science student at George Mason University. He is graduating in May and is weighing an offer from MIT as well as job offers from area defense contractors who are desperate to fill slots. (Dayna Smith - TWP)

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Monday, March 26, 2007

At a job fair last week, Michael Gagnon passed out the impressive resume he'd already posted on Monster.com. It lists his prized internships with defense contractors, the dozen computer programming languages he knows inside and out, and the 4.0 average he has maintained in computer science classes at George Mason University.

The recruiters went down the list of must-have qualities. Know Java? Check. U.S. citizen? Check. Got a security clearance? Bonus points.

As of last week, he'd gotten about 10 calls from companies that can't hire information technology workers fast enough. Contracting giants Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and SAIC have shown interest, and he has received inquiries from local tech start-ups, a consulting firm in Massachusetts and even Google.

"I feel like a commodity in some ways," said Gagnon, 23, in a telephone interview from the Fairfax campus research lab where he works.

If he is, he's a highly desirable one. A study by the Greater Washington Initiative shows that since 1999 Washington's information technology workforce has grown, on average, 8 percent a year -- three times the national rate. Most of those jobs have been in computer programming and systems design. The bursting of the dot-com bubble put a crimp in growth, but industry experts say this region recovered and expanded because of the post-Sept. 11 government contracting boom. Today, the study says, 10 percent of the nation's IT workers -- about 202,500 people -- are in the metropolitan Washington area. That includes software engineers, network analysts and database administrators.

As local opportunities expand, there aren't enough people to fill them. Between 1999 and 2005, the region added 36,000 software engineering jobs and 9,000 computer support specialists, the study shows. The problem is compounded by the fact that many IT jobs require security clearances, which can take nearly two years to obtain. People who've gotten clearance through internships or previous jobs have an edge.

"Some companies say they don't have work for me," Gagnon said. "But then they say, 'Wait a minute -- do you have a clearance?' "

About to graduate in May, he's considering his options. Most companies that want to hire him are offering jobs in software development or programming, but those bore him. His passion is in computer-security research -- finding new ways to protect software from super-stealth viruses and other threats. And those jobs are harder to come by in this area.

So Gagnon is leaning toward a potential job-scholarship package at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he could get a graduate degree while working in a nonprofit research lab.

Many of his classmates are also juggling a glut of job inquiries from both local and out-of-town companies. A lot of them would like to stay in the area, he says, but they are also looking for "more innovative work."

"I don't think people like me will stay here if they aren't offered as stimulating opportunities as there are elsewhere," he said. "It seems everyone here does consulting, and that's just not for me right now."

In the tech community, there's often a buzz about interesting projects, said Kathleen Smith of ClearedJobs.net in Falls Church, which helps firms find workers with security clearances. "Some people only want to work on the next hot thing," she said. "In this town, your cachet is dependent on which new, cutting-edge, exciting project you are working."

This leaves projects considered old hat more difficult to fill, she said, because IT professionals want to work on something that will build their resume, improve their skills and impress their colleagues.

Meanwhile, national companies continue to open offices in Washington. And large systems integrators keep scrambling for workers: Booz Allen Hamilton, for instance, has 200 IT job openings in Virginia.

From where Gagnon stands, the supply doesn't seem to be falling too short of the demand.

"I don't see employers begging for people to fill jobs," he said, "but I don't think any of my friends will have a problem finding something here."

-- Kim Hart


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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