Companies rushing to compete for intelligence and military contracts have run into a major glitch: The government's system of verifying the trustworthiness of people in sensitive jobs has not kept up with its push to privatize the work.

Today there is a backlog of 188,000 requests for security clearances from private contractors. Companies say that backlog -- and the yearlong wait now common for new clearances -- hampers business. Government officials say it is limiting whom they can hire.

Administrators of the government clearance program say they are studying the issue, but offer little in the way of near-term solutions.

In 1999, private companies asked the Department of Defense to provide security clearances for 48,481 of their employees. By last year, that number had tripled. Counting applications from government agencies, the grand total of clearance requests awaiting action comes to 360,000, according to a February report from the General Accounting Office.

The resulting backlog has limited the number of eligible workers available to these companies, causing them to pay premiums for cleared employees and escalating the acquisition sprees undertaken by many large government contractors. Buying another company with lots of cleared employees is often easier than recruiting people individually, contracting executives said. In 2002, defense contractors bought 65 other information technology firms, the most acquisitions the sector has seen in a decade.

For example, Arlington-based CACI International Inc., which performed interrogation work at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, has completed eight such purchases since last summer, including the recent acquisition of American Management System Inc.'s Defense and Intelligence Group.

Along with paying more for cleared workers -- up to a 25 percent premium, according to a survey by the Northern Virginia Technology Council -- contractors will sometimes forgo lengthy vetting processes to get cleared workers in place quickly. Recruiters from Fairfax-based ManTech International Corp. said they handed out on-the-spot job offers at a career fair the company held earlier this year to individuals with security clearance.

"We're essentially creating a new class of people here, where a clearance takes precedent over skills or ability, and that's sad," said Brendan M. Peter, senior director of enterprise solutions at the Information Technology Association of America.

"The companies have to move quickly to fill a wide range of roles and this is a case where . . . your profit margins are dependent on you getting as many people as you can deployed as quickly as you can," said P.W. Singer, the author of "Corporate Warriors," a book about the privatization of the military, who estimated that the government outsourcing trend has translated into about $100 billion in revenue for contractors.

A security clearance is a type of certification required for military personnel and some government workers and private industry employees who have access to secure facilities or classified information.

In recent years, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the government has increasingly turned to private companies for sensitive anti-terrorism and wartime tasks. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told soldiers at a town hall meeting last August that the military has to focus on its core mission by, among other things, farming out more jobs to the private sector.

The Department of Defense and the Office of Personnel Management together process clearances for most federal agencies and currently have about 4,200 investigators handling applications. About 8,000 investigators are necessary to eliminate the backlog, according to a February report by the General Accounting Office.

That seems unlikely to happen soon, according to government officials. "I don't think we expect significant improvement this year," said Rick Lawhorn, a senior manager with the Defense Security Service, the Defense Department office that manages the clearance process.

This has made it hard for newcomers to break into the field. Last month, Abbas Yazdani came across a government contract worth more than $3 million that seemed like a perfect match for his Reston technology company, Artel Inc. A large federal agency was looking for the type of information security services that had become Artel's specialty.

Yazdani, Artel's president and chief executive, immediately directed his staff to begin drafting a proposal. But in order to bid on the contract, Artel had to be able to show that it had six qualified employees with top-secret security clearances lined up to start work on the project immediately.

Like most companies, Artel didn't have six skilled employees waiting in the wings, so it launched an intensive search, reviewing hundreds of resumes, making more than a dozen job offers. Hiring talented but uncleared workers was not an option because the project would be over before new clearances came through.

Each candidate eventually asked about the nature of the project and Yazdani had to admit that Artel hadn't yet won the contract. The response, he recalled, was always the same: "I have so many opportunities in front of me, why should I do this?"

Last month, on the eve of the deadline, Artel threw its proposal in the garbage. The company has missed out on a dozen such opportunities, Yazdani said, because workers with security clearances are in such sort supply.

"It's a story of chicken and egg," Yazdani said. "My issue is that we don't ever get to the table because of these stupid policies."

Recent events, however, have shown that taking shortcuts to accelerate the clearance process could pose significant problems, and some lawmakers are calling for an even more thorough vetting processes. While some seemingly benign duties, such as laying telecommunications fiber in agency buildings, can require high-level clearances, other jobs -- translating in Iraq, for instance -- are being filled by workers who have not had security clearance checks, according to the investigation of conditions inside the Abu Ghraib prison by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba.

Companies say the delay in the clearance process has hurt their ability to get qualified professionals in place. "If the secret to security is to beat the bad guys . . . then you need to be operating on all cylinders," said John Hillen, senior vice president of American Management Systems Inc.'s defense and intelligence practice. But contractors' ability to do that, he said, is "being held up because we're all trying to find cleared workers."

The Information Technology Association of America said more than 20 percent of its 400 member companies report having 500 or more openings for cleared workers. "We're all just hacking at each other's ankles, fighting for the same people," said Hillen of AMS. "Nobody likes it -- it's an expensive game of stalemate and attrition."

Meanwhile, individuals without clearances cannot apply for one themselves in order to increase their marketability; a company or agency must request one on their behalf.

"The only job fairs that are being held in this area now are the ones that are looking for people with clearances," said Paul D. Triplett, a Reston software engineer with 25 years of experience who does not have clearance and has been looking for work since January. Two weeks ago Triplett received an e-mail from a recruiter at a large government contractor expressing interest in his online resume.

The second sentence of the note asked if Triplett had an active security clearance.

"Without it we can't go further," the e-mail stated.

Many government officials admit there's a problem. "It certainly makes it more challenging to get projects done in a timely manner," said Jack L. Johnson Jr., chief security officer of the Department of Homeland Security.

Johnson said information technology projects can face the longest delays because skilled technologists with high-level clearances are particularly hard to find. "I certainly would like this process to be expedited in some fashion, but not at the sacrifice of the quality of people we're bringing on board," he said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said that to fulfill its mission the military must farm out more jobs to the private sector.