When Hakeem Thomas joined the Army National Guard a decade ago, he remembers a recruiter telling him, “You don’t understand what a security clearance is now, but you will when you get out.”
Now a computer forensics specialist, Thomas understands perfectly.
“Having a security clearance opens up more doors,” he said in a recent interview.
After a medical separation for a deployment injury last fall, Thomas, 32, landed 20 job interviews, 10 callbacks and three job offers before taking a position with an information technology company that needed his secret clearance.
“I believe that security clearances are the golden ticket for service members,” he said.
Evan Lesser, founder of the careers networking site ClearanceJobs.com, said it’s a supply-and-demand issue. The shrinking number of people with a security clearance combined with “astronomical” wait times means employers are “desperate” for candidates who have already been cleared to handle classified information, he said.
A quick search for “security clearance” on the federal government’s USAJOBS site reveals hundreds of open positions; Lesser’s website has more than 30,000 postings.
“Everyone likes to be in demand, and ... really the best thing about being in the cleared workforce right now is just being in a place where people want you,” Lesser said, naming information technology and engineering as the hottest fields.
The most common types of security clearances are confidential, secret and top secret, which must be reinvestigated every 15, 10 and five years, respectively. Top secret, the most exclusive, involves the most extensive background check of criminal, financial, residential and other records, including contact with foreign nationals.
Most jobs in the military require some level of clearance, and all service members are required to pass at least a minimum background investigation for handling sensitive information, a Pentagon spokeswoman said in an email.
For employers, hiring a veteran with a clearance — good for two years after separation — has multiple benefits.
Doing so lets companies avoid the cost of having to sponsor or initiate a security clearance and minimizes the hiring time for a cleared position, said George Bernloehr, military recruiting lead for government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. About 80 percent of the company’s current job openings require some level of clearance.
At BAE Systems, another government contractor, about half of the company’s U.S.-based jobs require a clearance. Veterans are often the perfect candidates for these roles, Chris Davison, manager of veteran recruiting and warrior integration, said in an email.
“In many cases the clearance transfer process can be expedited with veterans, which translates into an employee hitting the ground running and serving our customers quicker,” he said.
Last fall, an official with the group that oversees background checks for security clearances, the National Background Investigations Bureau, indicated there were approximately 50,000 requests for such checks received on a weekly basis last year. With only 7,000 personnel handling them, that put the total backlog around 690,000.
For the fastest 90 percent of cases, the average processing time from initiation to a final decision for confidential and secret clearances was 244 days ― and 452 days for top secret clearances ― in fiscal 2017, the official said.
“That’s why if you already have one out of the military, you’re going to save a company a ton of money,” Lesser said.
Thomas doesn’t think he would have gotten so many job interviews without his secret clearance.
“Looking at people that I know, especially in my field, that don’t have a clearance, I mean they’re screwed,” he said. “Even having over a 3.5 GPA doesn’t help as much. I’m getting opportunities that I think they should get, and they’re not getting the time of day because they don’t have a clearance. It’s night and day.”
The cleared workforce may not be as attractive as it once was, however.
While several years ago, a security clearance typically meant higher pay than uncleared positions, that’s not necessarily the case anymore with the economy in better shape, Lesser said. And according to the results of ClearanceJobs.com’s most recent compensation survey last year, the average salary of cleared employees was $86,902, down from $88,022 in 2014.
Another compensation survey, from the Human Resources Association of the National Capital Area, also showed a reduction over last year in the salary advantage cleared workers have over non-cleared workers.
In addition, recent Office of Personnel Management hacks that exposed the personal information of millions of people who had undergone background checks are a negative factor to consider, Lesser said.
But in the case of another economic downturn, he believes workers with a clearance will fare much better than those without one.
A security clearance “is great career asset,” Lesser said. “Always has been, always will be.”
That was enough to make Thomas turn down a job offer for a position that wouldn’t have made use of his security clearance in favor of a job that did. After working to keep a spotless record for nearly 10 years, he didn’t want to let it go to waste.
“When you have a clearance, secret or top secret, it changes your life. You have to be careful who you associated with, what you do,” he said, adding later, “No one wants to lose their clearance, unless it’s for a higher one.”
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.