In the face of profound cybersecurity threats, ongoing hostilities around the world and the rise of domestic extremism, most contractors to federal agencies share a common, leading challenge – hiring enough skilled, cleared workers to conduct their missions.
“In getting contracts, my number one challenge is always the ability to staff. Our number one priority right now is being able to get cleared people to execute the mission and support the warfighter in the way we need to,” said R. Brandon Tipton, Strategy and Business Development Manager at Lockheed Martin. “I will tell you that every single BD person and small business owner that I talk to acknowledges that staffing is their number one challenge too. We are all fishing from the same pond and we need more people to come in so that we can execute the mission.”
That shortage and that commitment to national security is why so many FMA members have volunteered their time and expertise to create Project SCOPE (Security Clearance Overview and Preparation Education) and deliver presentations about the curriculum to students and educators. Nearly two dozen volunteers gave presentations to nearly 1,600 students last year. Volunteers visit middle school, high school and college classes to discuss the need for security clearances, the career opportunities they create and how to obtain a clearance. Presenters also relate their own experiences as cleared professionals.
“The FMA volunteers with Project SCOPE are really good at gauging the tone of a class and adjusting the presentation as needed. We don’t want it to be dry so we have a range of speakers who can tell different stories,” said Logan Thompson, Director of Proposal Operations for BigBear.ai.
Those stories are instructive and sometimes eye-opening.
Kwami Fox, Founder and CEO of Imperial Cyber Group, said students are always surprised when he describes his journey to obtaining a security clearance. “I don’t have a clean background. I got in trouble in high school,” he said.
Fox, who enlisted in the Army and trained as an IT specialist, was able to obtain a Top Secret full-scope security clearance because those behaviors were an isolated part of his past and he was completely honest about them with investigators.
Fox, however, cautions students that his high school activities still had consequences.
“There are certain parts of the government where you cannot have trouble in your background,” he added. “For instance, I was denied working at White House Comms because I had a record for shoplifting and minor drug use in high school, so that definitely impacted my career… It is critical we make sure young people know that a security clearance is vital to doing work within the IC community and within certain government agencies, and we want to make sure they don’t do anything to jeopardize their ability to obtain a security clearance.”
Project SCOPE presentations walk students through the most common issues that surface with security clearance applications, including drug use (even of cannabis in states where it is legal), alcohol use, traffic tickets, criminal charges, financial problems that could make a person susceptible to bribes, or personal secrets that could make them susceptible to blackmail or coercion. Presenters discuss the complexities and risks of online activities, including sharing information on social media and engaging in online gaming with unknown players.
“When you are going into the business of keeping secrets, you don’t want to tell everything about yourself online. People will wonder how much you feel pressured to share,” said Margie Forbes, Vice President, Strategic Initiatives with Assured Information Security, Inc. “Young people are easily influenced by peer pressure and they will do things to experiment, gain acceptance, impress people. There was the young man in Massachusetts in the Air National Guard in an IT role who shared classified information online to make himself look more important and popular with his gaming community.”
Project SCOPE presenters help students understand how to guide their behavior and recover from some mistakes in order to qualify for a clearance.
Security clearance adjudicators realize “that human beings sometimes do stupid things,” Thompson said. “You are allowed to be a human being. You just can’t be one that is open to coercion by our adversaries.
Speakers can alert students to opportunities to obtain security clearances early, such as the Lockheed Martin internship program which enables high school and college students to conduct internal research, work on federal contracts and obtain a clearance, Tipton said.
Presentations also highlight the benefits of being a cleared worker, including high demand, compensation and job options for cleared workers, professional development opportunities and employment stability.
“My 30-plus years as a government employee definitely allowed me to be in a position where I had a diversity of experiences,” Forbes said. “The agency paid for two master’s degrees that allowed me to grow academically… I also had the opportunity to live in other countries and experience other cultures and bring my family with me.”
Presenters also alert students that cleared jobs come in many forms. In addition to IT and cybersecurity professionals, workers in accounting, human resources, communication, administration, logistics, foreign languages, security, construction and many more fields need and benefit from security clearances.
“In college, I was a criminal justice major,” Tipton said. Within the community of cleared workers serving the government, “we have tons of different functional areas so there is a lot of opportunity out there, regardless of what your major is.”
The Fort Meade Alliance is looking to establish a new cohort of Project SCOPE cleared volunteers who are willing to go into classrooms and tell their stories. Please contact Education, Workforce & Programs Manager Kelly Spore at email@example.com if you are interested in helping shape the future workforce.