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.
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.
Private companies tend to pay more than government agencies. Contractor employees with clearances in the D.C. region earn, on average, $99,174 - an 8 percent premium over their government counterparts, according to ClearanceJobs, which surveyed 3,600 security-cleared workers.
Economists say the high salaries and the demand for cleared personnel has helped buoy the D.C. area's economy.
"Other metropolitan areas don't have this kind of business anywhere near to the same degree we do," said Stephen Fuller, a local economist. "This has emerged since 9/11 and the main benefit of it is the boost of payroll."
At the TechExpo fairs, most of the job-seekers were men, and ranged from military personnel in their early 30s to mid-40s who were nearing retirement to computer tech experts in their 50s and early 60s - some of whom were retired from the military and looking for second careers. Some had recently lost their jobs when government contracts ended.A few came from as far as Fredericksburg and Virginia Beach.
Recruiters paid $2,500 to $6,000 for a booth and got a lunch of crab cakes and beef, plus an "afternoon breakout room" featuring pineapple, strawberries and marshmallows to dip into a three-foot-tall chocolate-fondue stand. The list of companies included smaller players such as Intelligent Decisions of Columbia and Blue Canopy of Reston and giant defense contractors such as L-3 Communications, Lockheed Martin, TASC, ManTech and Northrop Grumman. Recruiters in booths offered candidates free pens, yo-yos, lip balm, hand sanitizer, plastic cups, recyclable bags and little wind-up robots.
They jockeyed to lure the most prized candidates - those with TS/SCI, full-scope polygraph clearances. That means the person has access to "sensitive compartmented information" and has gone through two types of polygraphs and answered a range of questions about everything from family relationships to drug and alcohol abuse and knowledge of espionage against the United States.
"It's a small pool of people who have the high-level clearances," said Christina Thomas, a senior technical recruiter for FGM, a Reston-based defense contractor seeking 20 to 25 software engineers and developers for homeland security work. "We're all trying to fight for the same people. It's like battle."
Anthony Vrsalovich, director of recruiting for Freedom Consulting, stood behind his table with a sign that read in big, red letters: "All positions require a full scope polygraph." He watched a middle-aged man in a navy blue sport jacket glance at his sign and whispered under his breath, "Don't even bother," noting the color of the man's sticker, which showed he had only a top-secret clearance. The man paused, read the sign and kept walking.
"With a full-scope polygraph, you could be asked to work the country's inner most secrets," Vrsalovich said. "We're all in a feeding frenzy because we're competing for the same fully cleared person."
Tracy Stancil, who is active duty in the Air Force doing signal analysis and is planning to retire soon, took an hour to check out the booths at the BWI job fair.
"I want to stay where the money is," said Stancil, who has a high-level clearance.
L-3 recruiter Meagan Leddick recognized one of the candidates from a previous job.
"You're looking again?" she asked the 43-year-old man, who is a database administrator with more than 20 years of experience and an MBA. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he worried that using his name would jeopardize his clearance and job search. He told Leddick that the contract he was on as a database administrator at the CIA was about to end. He had received six possible job leads but no firm offers.
Leddick ticked off a series of questions.
Are you a Unix, Windows or Linux guy?
Any, he answered.
Experience with virtualization?
Within minutes she steered him toward two possible jobs online. "Good luck," she said.
TechExpo's defense job fairs make about $2 million a year in revenue, according to Bradford Rand, the company's chief executive. He does a show a month in Maryland and Virginia, plus ones in the District, Colorado Springs and Huntsville, Ala., which are hot spots for defense contractors.
Other organizations sponsor similar events, including The Washington Post, which has held job fairs over the years that include areas for job-seekers with active security clearances.
Rand said he doesn't guarantee job-seekers success but estimated that 25 percent of his attendees land a job. His two most recent fairs near BWI and Reston drew about 400 job candidates and nearly 100 employers.
By 2:30 p.m., organizers deemed the event a success. They helped waiters pass out champagne to the recruiters.