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Security clearances don’t pay like they once did

Security clearances are a highly sought-after commodity in the D.C. job market, given the region’s proximity to intelligence agencies, and cleared employees are paid substantially more on average than those without access to confidential information.

But new data from the Human Resource Association of the National Capital Area suggest security-cleared employees are not as in demand as they used to be.

The average pay differential associated with having a security clearance went down in 2014 for the first time in at least six years, according to employer data collected by HRA-NCA. Pay differentials are getting larger for those employees lucky enough to get one, but the percent of contractors that offer pay differentials is expected to drop from 72 percent in 2010 to 37 percent for 2014.

What accounts for the decline? Business leaders chalk it up to simple shifts in supply and demand. Employers need fewer cleared employees as last year’s federal budget cuts, furloughs and the lingering effects of sequestration continue to dry up revenues across the contracted workforce. At the same time, there is a larger pool of cleared employees, after shortages in 2009 and 2010 prompted the government to speed up the clearance process.

“The government is doing a better job of processing these clearances in a timely manner, and now there are more people with clearances. Maybe too many,” said Alan Chvotkin, vice president of the Professional Services Council, an industry association for businesses that contract with the government.

Cleared employees still get substantially larger paychecks than their counterparts. An employee with a secret clearance makes 5.8 percent more on average than one without a clearance, and a top secret clearance pulls a 12.8 percent pay differential. For a top secret “special access programs” clearance, which allows access to highly classified “black projects” not even acknowledged to exist, employees are compensated 14.9 percent more.

But human resources professionals say companies are less likely to give someone a pay-raise purely based on a security clearance. Having a broader pool of cleared employees to choose from has given employers more leeway to determine employees’ pay based on the skills they bring to the table.

“A while ago, if you had a high-level clearance, that would almost trump the skill itself. If you had a clearance, your foot was almost already in the door,” said Dorion Baker, director of talent acquisition at STG, a mid-tier government contractor based in Reston. Now, businesses are more likely to make hiring decisions based on specific in-demand skills. “Times have changed, and it’s really driven by the talent now.”

A separate analysis by, a placement service for employees with security clearances, and Cypress Research Group, an independent analysis firm, found that overall pay for cleared contractors began to fall significantly in 2013.

The year “2013 was without a doubt the most dismal year for cleared professionals that we’ve seen in the last decade,” said Evan Lesser, director of

Some employees expressed mixed feelings about the benefits of having a clearance. Some find that having a clearance before being hired pushes them to the front of the line when a company wants to fill a position quickly.

“Already having secret or higher [clearance] is a desired quality in a candidate because it takes so long to get one sometimes that it allows the company’s hiring process to proceed more quickly,” said one security-cleared employee now working at a nonprofit institution. The employee spoke on the condition of anonymity to steer clear of any repercussions for discussing the status.

But others regard the status as just another plus to add to the résumé.

“I’d put it as a marginal advantage, not huge.” said another security-cleared employee in the private sector who recently conducted a job search. “My security clearance is a dime a dozen.”

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