Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Clearance process is exhaustive, but can lead to higher salary, more opportunity

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All applicants who accept offers for federal jobs must undergo a basic background investigation that — with some variation according to the opening — is designed to ensure that that they have no glaring deal-breakers in their backgrounds, such as legal problems.

But more and more jobs with federal agencies and government contractors are requiring security clearances that involve more exhaustive investigations than basic background investigations. A security clearance is an authorization to a fed or contractor to access classified materials needed to do a particular job.

You cannot apply for a security clearance yourself. To obtain a security clearance you must work for an agency or contractor that requests a security clearance for you because your job requires access to classified information.

The main types of clearances are:

Confidential: Provides access to information or material that may cause damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.

Secret: Provides access to information or material that may cause serious damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.

Top secret: Provides access to information or material that may cause exceptionally grave damage to national security if disclosed without authorization.

Sensitive compartmented information: Provides access to intelligence information and material that may require controls for restricted handling within compartmented channels.

Some jobs are open only to applicants who already possess security clearances. But other openings are open to applicants who don’t have security clearances but would be expected to qualify for them. In government lingo, such applicants are called “clearable.” Offers to clearable selectees are usually made on a contingency basis, i.e. the job offer is not solid until the selectee passes his security investigation, and will be rescinded if he fails the investigation.

If you receive a contingency offer, remember that your new job is not a done deal until you pass your security clearance. Even if you consider your record squeaky clean, your job offer may be rescinded if snags are unexpectedly uncovered or if other problems unrelated to your background, such as unanticipated budget woes in your target agency, kill your deal.

The higher a job is up the security clearance ladder, the more exhaustive its associated background investigation will be. But all investigations for security clearances require applicants to complete Standard Form 86, which is accessible on the Office of Personnel Management website, Investigations also include interviews with the applicant, the applicant’s current and former friends, neighbors, colleagues, bosses, psychologists and psychiatrists; medical examinations to ensure the applicant’s medical and mental fitness; checks of the applicant’s travel history, foreign contacts, current and previous residences, academic records, military record, credit history, court and police records, employment history; and a polygraph test.

Depending on your target job and employer, you might need a security clearance to advance. Also, feds and contractors possessing clearances of “secret” and above are generally more marketable and generally earn significantly higher salaries than their counterparts whose jobs don’t require security clearances.

What types of jobs require clearances? Jobs addressing financial management, scientific research, diplomacy, defense, auditing, law enforcement and intelligence are most likely to require security clearances. Indeed, virtually everyone who works for the FBI — even administrative assistants — must pass security clearances.

Also, certain types of jobs are particularly likely to require security clearances — such as human resources personnel who access staffers’ personnel information, accountants who access confidential financial information, auditors who access legal information, and information technology professionals who access secure systems, to name just a few.


Having staffers advance is a win for all

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If you’re a manager, encourage your administrative staffers to earn career-boosting credentials and avoid stagnating in their current jobs. The more skilled, independent and nimble your staff is, the higher your office productivity will be — and the better you will look.

In addition, you will likely improve morale and discourage staffers from seeking jobs elsewhere.

To help your staffers ascend, research appropriate career tracks for them. Many responsible federal jobs only require relevant experience, not necessarily college degrees. Appropriate fields for aspiring administrative staffers without degrees include administrative officers, procurement, property management, equal opportunity, human resources, information technology and website development.

Research mentoring and training funds — available in-house or from private vendors and professional organizations — to help pay for relevant and degree-track courses. Potential training sources include the Federal Acquisition Institute, the Defense Acquisition Institute, the Graduate School, defense and intelligence agencies, and leadership training sources catalogued on the Office of Personnel Management website.

Because of ongoing shortages of acquisitions officers, training or experience in acquisitions and contracting, including as a contracting officer’s technical representative (COTR) or as an assistant COTR, are useful credentials.

Likewise, experience and certifications in project management are career-boosting credentials. And just about everyone can benefit from training in communications skills, social media, time management and congressional budget processes.

Speak directly to your staffers about their career prospects. Perhaps during performance evaluations, explain that feds must usually do more than just reliably fulfill their job descriptions to land promotions. Rather, they must go beyond the call of duty and exceed their job descriptions, without showing a sense of entitlement for promotions.

Discuss with your staffers their interests and strengths. Remind them that the more intensive, specialized experience they gain, the more likely they will be to become the “go to” people for their specialties.

But by the same token, the broader an administrative professional’s skill set is, the more likely he will be to stand out from the pack of one-trick ponies he may compete against. So, assure your staffers you will try to offer them assignments and training that not only enhance their credentials in their specialties but also expand their skills and address their weaknesses.

Encourage staffers to identify, design and volunteer to lead or co-lead needed projects and to identify training opportunities and detail assignments that would help them qualify for their target jobs. For example, advise your employees to identify committees on which they could serve to broaden their knowledge of your agency’s management strategies and expose them to other feds — and help them grow their reputations.

Also, emphasize the importance of learning about the substantive policy and management issues addressed by your agency.

More ways to help your staffers advance:

• Nominate them for awards, as warranted.

• Build promotion potential into new jobs.

• Suggest that employees earn advanced degrees or degrees in high-demand fields from vocational schools.

• Provide opportunities for administrative staffers to train others and earn supervisory experience.