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Fairs help job-seekers with security clearances connect with intelligence firms

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Eric Mendel, sales manager for TechExpoUSA, discusses the demand for people with top-secret clearances at the TechExpo Top Secret in Reston.

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By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 9:39 PM

Outside a hotel ballroom near Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, about three dozen men and a handful of women lined up one recent morning to get a colored dot - green, blue or red - affixed to their suits and dresses.

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The colors were key to what's known as the "meal ticket" for getting a job in the intelligence community: a top-secret clearance.

It was TechExpo Top Secret, a job fair run by a New York-based firm that specializes in helping those with clearances connect with companies doing intelligence work under U.S. government contracts. At a check-in booth, organizers asked, "What's your clearance level?" and passed each candidate an appropriately colored sticker.

Each color represented a level of clearance. But organizers declined to reveal which color meant "top secret" and which was the sought-after "top-secret/SCI with a full scope polygraph." That, of course, was secret - as were the full names of most attendees.

"You've got to be a part of the club," said a middle-aged man who gave only his first name, Ben, as he stuck a blue dot on his nametag. One recruiter called a top-secret clearance "priceless." A 41-year-old man with a blue sticker on his dark-gray suit who was looking for a job shouted one word for its worth: "Gold!"

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a major increase in government jobs and contractor positions that require secret clearances, from janitors at spy agencies to specialized computer technicians and software developers. A Washington Post series called Top Secret America examined the buildup in the country's national security and found that 854,000 Americans have top-secret clearances, nearly a third of whom work for private contractors.

Job fairs such as the TechExpo, which is one of several that are run each month around the D.C. area, open a window into a vast, secretive economy that has helped keep the broader Washington region afloat, adding jobs and propping up home sales while unemployment surged and the housing market sank in other parts of the country.

Although Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently said he plans to cut back funding to contractors doing intelligence work, there was no sign of a slowdown at TechExpo's recent events - one near Fort Meade and the other in Reston.

At the fairs, the demand drives up the value of the highest clearances. One job recruiter offered free iPads for referrals. For recruiters, hiring a person who has a top-secret clearance saves time and money. The Government Accountability Office has put the Pentagon on its high-risk list because of major delays in issuing clearances, which some recruiters say can take six months to a year.

"There's been an increasing demand for people and they're needed right away," said Jim Gattuso, director of recruiting for CSC, a major defense contractor. He's looking to fill about 100 jobs that require cleared personnel for a variety of contract work for the Pentagon and intelligence agencies.

"You don't have time to go to the marketplace and find people who have the technical skills but don't have clearances because that takes too long," he said."You get task orders from the government and they want them filled -- and fast - so that puts all the contractors under some degree of pressure to get staff quickly. It creates a supply and demand inequity and it means paying a premium."

People with security clearances are in the top 10 percent of wage earners in the country, according to ClearanceJobs.com, a job board for those with security clearances. Typically, the higher the clearance level, the higher the pay. Those with the much sought after top-secret/SCI level, the Pentagon's highest issued clearance, earn $94,282 a year -$10,000 more than those who have a low-level secret clearance.Virginia, with its high concentration of federal agencies and defense contractors in wealthy counties such as Fairfax and Arlington, ranks second in the country for average pay for employees with security clearances, at $98,658, according to ClearanceJobs. It follows only California, where cleared personnel earn $98,968. The District and Maryland rank third and fourth, at $98,542 and $94,398, respectively.


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