September 11 put a spotlight on job prospects in the defense industry. Applications surged from network engineers and embedded systems programmers looking to bounce back from layoffs or contribute to the fight against terrorism.
What does it take to break into the industry? Do you need a security clearance to jump from dotcom to defense? Here's our guide for anyone considering employment in this sector.
Understanding Security Clearances
Scan the job listings for defense-related jobs, and you'll realize these positions often require security clearances. If you've got a clearance or had one in recent years, you're ahead of the game. "The critical need is for people who have had clearances," says David Tittle, president of Paul-Tittle Search Group, a search firm in the Washington, DC, area.
Receiving a clearance can take a few months to a year or longer. The factors involved include:
- The number of government agencies involved.
- Whether it is a "secret" or a "top secret" clearance.
- The specifics of the individual's background.
A lower-level clearance might entail a relatively simple background check, according to Phil Preston, senior vice president of staffing firm Comforce Corp. But work on weapons systems may require a "top secret" clearance. Such clearances take more time to obtain and also involve investigators delving into all areas of the individual's life, interviews with neighbors and friends, and even a polygraph test. "They know more about you than you know yourself," Preston says.
Lack of clearance shouldn't stop you from seeking a job in the defense industry. "People should not be discouraged who may not have had a security clearance," says Michael Patrick, director of workforce recruitment and planning for Northrop Grumman Information Technology, where 60 percent of the positions require some form of clearance. The company plans to hire more than 4,000 individuals within the next year. "Managers tend to prefer a qualified person who already has the clearance," says Patrick, "but people without the clearances certainly are not excluded."
The company may hire you without a clearance, begin the clearance process and delay your start date. "We can extend offers and commit to a start date that is several months out," says Patrick. "That's a cost-effective way to do it." Companies also hire the individual and have him work on another project until the clearance is processed.
"Be persistent and perhaps a little flexible," Patrick suggests.
Process Is Paramount
Don't expect anything close to the ad-hoc attitude toward project development you may have seen in other sectors. While the technologies may be the same, attention to process is key. The industry seeks disciplined, detail-oriented workers. "It helps if they've been on large, complex projects," says Tittle.
"Once you're in, the software development cycle is extremely process-oriented," says Preston. Employers may seek individuals with expertise in concepts such as Capability Maturity Models (CMM), an area pioneered by the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. For government-related contracts, the process is tracked at every stage, with careful accounting of how workers spend their time. "Renegade software developers don't really adapt well," says Preston. "The dotcommers tend not to be attracted to it and don't have the outlook on the development process to make a successful transition."
- Disciplined workers thrive in the defense industry, but it's not for everyone. If you're seeking sudden riches and stock options, the defense industry probably isn't the place for you.
- Defense work doesn't take place everywhere. Unless you're in the Washington, DC, area, California, the Southwest or a few other regions, you'll have trouble finding work.
- Once you're in the industry, be prepared to move -- from company to company and city to city -- as the contracts and companies change. "The vast majority of technologists that I see in the defense industry move on a fairly regular basis, like every three or four years," Preston says.
- Individuals with a military background may have an easier time finding work. However, foreign citizens may be excluded altogether as many defense jobs require U.S. citizenship.
Defense projects may take a while, but the technologies involved are often leading edge. Right now, interoperability is a central goal, with projects aimed at connecting information from disparate agencies, says Tittle. And weapons systems often lead technological development. "Technology is embedded everywhere, right into the ordnance that flies into the enemy building," says Preston.
"The programs are truly fascinating and are directly related to protecting our national security," notes Preston. "There's just a feeling of pride when you're part of those kinds of programs."