Everything you ever wanted to know about security clearance IT jobs (including sponsorship) but were too afraid to ask…
What do cops, members of the security services, and systems engineers have in common? All of these jobs often require a security clearance. So do network engineers, software architects, and even coders.
The number of IT jobs that require clearance might surprise you. Often, it’s not the job itself, but the organization hiring you for the job. Database administrators who work for the military, for example, require clearance. Database administrators working for private companies might not. Most government agencies, who are super-paranoid about national security, require clearance before you even pull up a chair at the IT desk.
One thing’s for sure: More IT roles require clearance than ever before. Nine percent of all job listings ask for clearance, and 50 percent of these positions are in the digital tech sector. A growing number of organizations require candidates to have clearance before applying for the role, but it’s not clear how many applicants do.
Recently, in our Meet the Mentor webinar series, we spoke to senior cybersecurity engineer Dereck Watters, who provided us with some valuable insights into the top-secret world of security clearance.
In this guide, you’re going to discover the following:
- What kind of jobs require clearance.
- The four different levels of clearance.
- How to get your clearance sponsored.
- The different ways to obtain clearance.
- How to pass a clearance.
- Other insights from cybersecurity expert Dereck Watters.
Let’s Clear Up Some Things About Clearance
A security clearance isn’t something you can pay for. Or study for. You need to earn it, the hard way. Think of it as a badge of honor. A medal that proves you can protect classified information. You’re a genuine “keeper of secrets.” Someone who won’t snitch, no matter what.
There’s a huge shortage of people who have the technical abilities to perform a job with clearance. But Watters tells us that, once you earn clearance, you’ll be made for life.
“You’re pretty much guaranteed a job,” he says. “Put your resume on Indeed, and a thousand people are going to call you.”
Because there’s such a small pool of job candidates with the required clearance for some jobs, employers are willing to pay big bucks.
“Once you get that established under your name, you’re pretty much guaranteed a position from the Department of Defense or the Navy or the Air Force.”
The federal government views clearance as a prerequisite for most jobs that protect national security. So many government agencies have been burned in recent years — data breaches, like those at the Office of Personnel Management, Department of Energy, and Department of Veterans Affairs have become commonplace — so now candidates need the right security credentials to preserve the country’s biggest secrets.
It’s important to note that there isn’t just one type of security clearance, but four:
- Confidential: For people that could cause damage to national security if sensitive information is disclosed without authorization.
- Secret: For people that could cause serious damage to national security if sensitive information is disclosed without authorization.
- Top secret: For people that could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if sensitive information is disclosed without authorization.
- Sensitive compartmented information: For people who could access information concerning sensitive intelligence sources, methods, or analytical processes.
Once you’ve got clearance, you’re good for 15 years (10 years for secret clearance; five years for top-secret clearance). This means, in most instances, you won’t have to apply for clearance again for a whole decade or more.
There are a whole host of jobs that require some kind of clearance, especially in the government. Even if your job role has nothing to do with national security — “I’m just a software engineer,” you say — some agencies still require clearance, and not much you can do about it.
Some of the agencies that require clearance:
- Central Intelligence Agency
- Defense Intelligence Agency
- Defense Security Service
- Department of Defense
- Drug Enforcement Administration
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- National Security Agency
- Naval Criminal Investigative Service
- State Department
- United States Agency for International Development
Recommended reading: Why now’s a great time to consider a new career in cybersecurity.
How to Get Your Clearance Sponsored
Unfortunately, clearance costs money — lots of it. It costs between $3,000 and $15,000 to gain top-secret clearance; however, the feds will sometimes cover the cost for civilian government employees and military personnel. This is called “sponsorship.” The good news: Once you’ve gained clearance from the government, you can use it for any job that requires it — yes, even private companies.
Watters tells us there are four main ways to get your clearance sponsored:
- Part-time employment
This is the easiest way. Visit your nearest military processing center, and pick a military occupation code (MOS) that requires clearance. You can apply for this occupation, and the government will sponsor your clearance. It’s that simple. Just make sure you’re fit and healthy, and you have the correct scores for the role.
“You don’t have to do active military duty,” says Watters. “You could do the reserves if you don’t have much time. Or even the National Guard.”
Many colleges have government-sponsored programs that will pay for studies and security clearance. Sure, you’ll have to work for the government for a couple of years when you graduate (or pay a fee), but this can be a quick way to gain clearance if you don’t have the money.
“Essentially, if you’re going for a STEM tech degree either in cybersecurity, system engineering, or electrical engineering, they will pay for your school, and they sponsor you for your clearance,” says Watters. “This is a quick way to get into a government position without actually putting on the uniform.”
Word of warning: There are specific time slots for when you can apply for these programs, so plan ahead.
There are jobs out there that will sponsor your clearance, but they won’t always be in IT. You could apply for a security job or a similar role and get sponsorship. Just look on Monster. Or USAJobs.
“You could do this part-time,” adds Watters. “This gives you flexibility, and you get your clearance.”
Watters recommends that you look at how contracts are written for government contractors:
“If the government’s looking for a network engineer, some of the requirements are pretty weird. They will probably want you to have a CCNA, but they may also ask for a Microsoft server cert.”
It seems like a catch-all, but once you get to the interview stage, it’s a different story:
“If you can hit some of those checkboxes — not all, but some of them — they might really like you and start the paperwork and clearance process. They will put the contract on hold until you are through clearance. The people interviewing you aren’t actually the people who write the contract.”
Recommended reading: From IT administrator to network engineer, check out our interview with Chris Mickinnis here.
How to Pass Clearance
Now comes the scary part. You might think there are skeletons in your closet, but your past isn’t always a huge deal.
“We all have stuff in our past that we’re probably not too proud of but organizations are just looking for the things that you’re trying to keep secret from them,” says Watters. “Listen, most people think that because they smoked when they were 19, they are going to be disqualified. Investigators are not worried about anything like that. What they’re really concerned with is if you are a person that can be trusted with classified documents.”
The same goes for debt:
“They’re not looking for 800 credit scores. What they’re looking for is a person that’s trustworthy.”
A $50,000 debt in Guatemala that you didn’t disclose in your application? Potential red flag. A $4,000 debt for a TV from Best Buy? No problem.
“It’s hard to get people through the security clearance process because you need patience, and you have to have the honesty and integrity to put everything on paper. They are going to cycle through your life.”
How Long Does It Take?
How long is a piece of string? Clearance for government jobs can take anywhere from 3-6 months (and 6-18 months for top-secret clearance), and this process starts from the moment you turn in your Standard Form 86 — the document the government uses to “cycle through your life.”
Once you’ve submitted Form 86, human resources will submit your details to the State Department’s Office of Personnel Security and Suitability, and this is where everything springs into action. Things will move quickly, at first.
- Someone will carry out a National Agency Check (NAC). It’s like a criminal record and credit check rolled into one, with searches covering your residence, employment, and education locations over the last 7 years.
- Someone will scan your fingerprints.
- Someone will search the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s investigative index.
Then, you won’t hear anything for weeks. Maybe months. Eventually, a case manager will be assigned to your case, and you’ll be invited to an interview. This can be tough. The investigator will verify all the information you provided in your Form 86. Be prepared to answer questions, lots of questions.
Where did you work? Where did you live? Where did you go to school?
What do your parents do for work? Where did your parents live? Where did your parents go to school?
Investigators can check this information with law enforcement agencies, employers, and even school principals. No stone unturned.
It’s an exhausting process.
“Look, if you can explain your background, then they are there OK with it,” says Watters. “As long as you can articulate why you have that much money, or why your wife is from there or husband from there, it’s fine.”
After your interview, the investigator will weigh your results against security clearance guidelines. You’ll be notified of your results in the mail.
Now you play the waiting game.
Ask a Security Expert
In our Meet the Mentor webinar with Derick Watters, our students had some security clearance questions of their own…
How does a veteran get inside info about Department of Defense contracts?
“The biggest one is definitely word of mouth. If you see anyone on LinkedIn, just talk to them. Ask about open positions. Ask about clearance. Ask about sponsorship.”
What happens at the end of federal contracts?
“When the contract ends, they have to let you know. They have to discuss it with you up-front during the interview. Of course, you have to look for another position if the contract ends, but they need people with clearance so bad they will often keep you.”
What’s the most difficult thing about the clearance process?
“I have to get checked every 5 years. You know, sit down with somebody to explain why I bought a new house or car. I have to put my wife’s name down so she can get checked. Tell them about my family members. You have to get used to giving up a little bit of your privacy.”
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