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EXPLAINED: IT Job Security Clearances – An Expert Reveals the Secrets

EXPLAINED: IT Job Security Clearances – An Expert Reveals the Secrets

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:

  • Military
  • College
  • Part-time employment
  • Contracts

Military

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.”

College

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. 

Part-time employment

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.” 

Contracts

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.”

Want to become a cybersecurity specialist in as little as 400 hours? Our technical skills, foundational concepts, and hands-on labs will land you that entry-level cybersecurity role you’ve dreamed about. Apply now

Why NOW Is The Time To Consider A Career Move In The Field Of Cyber Security

Why NOW Is The Time To Consider A Career Move In The Field Of Cyber Security

Cyber adversaries are regularly coming up with sophisticated tools and technologies and innovating at a faster pace than what enterprises today can cope with. Let’s see why it’s high time and how to go about getting a job in cybersecurity. How much money can you make? In this article, you’ll explore what the critical Cyber Security certifications are and Cyber Security courses to get rapid career growth.

The recent surge of cyberattacks has throttled the digital world, by which organizations have not only lost their valuable information assets but also made financial and reputational losses. For this reason, cyber security is paramount in every organization’s management decision-making today. Ever-increasing cyber security breaches, resource crunch, and a shortage of talented information security professionals have left the management in limbo as they continue to struggle to find the right mix of people. It is not surprising to note that organizations lose over $8.19 million to data breaches on average. This is induced by a remarked deficit of network security professionals in comparison to the ever-rising population of cyber adversaries. 

Some Recent Breaches That Will Leave You Thinking

  • Data breach at Yahoo: Considered as one of the biggest data thefts of the decade, the Yahoo data breach of 2013 led to the compromising of 3 billion user accounts.
  • Data breach at Marriott International: Yet another data breach that will leave you astounded is the one that took place at Marriott International in 2018. This hacking attack stole the confidential data of over 500 million customers of the hotel chain.
  • WannaCry attacks: The ransomware WannaCry has been able to collect over $100,000 from organizations and people across the globe. 

If these statistics aren’t enough, an attacker is sitting in some corner of the world, launching the next major cyberattack, and you need to stop these cyber security breaches with your skills and efforts!

How In Demand Is The Field Of Cyber Security?

Considering the present scenario where job opportunities are lying ungrabbed in the field of cyber security, you can well imagine its absorption capacity! Research shows that the unfilled job positions in cyber security are to go up to 3.5 million in the coming decade as compared to 1.4 million in 2014. Here’s how to decide whether this dynamic field is the one for you:

  • A vibrant and appealing job opportunity: Working in the field of network security ensures freedom from monotony as it’s filled with variety. No case you handle is ever going to be a replica of another. The field is dynamic, and you are sure to love the mind games that await you. 
  • Financial Stability: The best part about a career in cyber security is the money that comes with it, and there is practically no limitation on it if you’re the master of your trade. The average pay is 50% higher than any private-sector job.
  • Thrill & uncertainty: Going for work will seem like going on a treasure hunt every day. It’s an adventurous experience for all, no matter which sector you specialize in.
  • Testing your skills every other day: Since a career in cyber security demands knowledge on different skill-sets, your experience of years in various fields comes handy now, and you can adequately utilize all your specialized skills. 

Related: Learn about the fundamental skills that will help you break into Cyber Security.

The Number Of Open Job Vacancies And The Expected Growth Of The Field

It is a known fact that the industry crisis in the field of cyber security is immense. The expected underemployment in the field is likely to reach 3.5 million by 2021. Therefore, it’s safe to say the platform remains open for cyber enthusiasts to perform, excel, and prosper. The industry has zero rates of unemployment and promises to be a field with endless opportunities and measureless growth.


For instance,

  • Two million openings expected in the Asia-Pacific region by 2021, and about 400,000 will be in Europe.
  • Currently, there are 314,000 unfilled cyber security positions in the USA. The U.S. had over 26,000 openings for cyber security analysts at the end of 2018. 

Why Is Security Becoming More Important As Technology Advances?

While all marvel at the quick transition of activities from offline to online that has happened in almost every walk of life. There is a significant threat that comes along with this technological advancement. All information is at the tip of your fingers – from your insurance policy number to your credit card details! Imagine what will happen if a malicious third party accesses these details? It is precisely why cyber and network security has become more critical in recent times.  

How Much Money Can I Make In Cyber Security?

Any role in the field of cyber security promises to pay extremely well as compared to any other private-sector job. Not only does this job pay well, but it also ensures that you like your work and draw some positive learning experience out of it that helps you in the long run. That being said, you can easily expect a 6 figure job as you work your way up through the industry.

The Verdict

Thus, a career in cyber security that is established with established cyber security certifications, hands-on training, and cyber security courses is one of the most secure career options now. It is expected to remain true for at least another decade. Especially the field of Artificial Intelligence-Machine Learning (AI ML) in cyber security, the combination of Data Science & AI-ML in enhancing SIEM tools & solutions, etc., is yet to be fully explored, and most job opportunities lie unabsorbed in the area. Getting a job in cyber security always offers lucrative salaries with new and diverse career responsibilities. 

To learn more about NexGenT’s Cyber Security program and what fundamental skills we teach to help you land your first job in cyber, click here. Thank you for reading and leave us a comment below with your thoughts on diving into this line of work.

Online Cybersecurity Training [Your NEED TO KNOW Fundamentals]

Online Cybersecurity Training [Your NEED TO KNOW Fundamentals]

Understanding fundamentals is a key part of becoming a skilled Cybersecurity engineer. Our program will teach you how to think like a hacker and help defend against attacks with practical real-world skills you’ll need for the job. In this blog, we’ll give you an overview of each module so you can see the key points you’ll be learning to build a strong foundation.

What Are The Key, Job-Ready Cybersecurity Skills We Teach At NexGenT?

  • Identify & Analyze Threats: In the first module of the program, we will do an introduction to a high-level overview of the cybersecurity ecosystem. We will understand the threat actors and the different types of attacks you see in this domain. We will also take a look into the various toolkits and how they fit into various security frameworks.
  • Cryptography: This module will cover the fundamentals of cryptography along with practical use cases in today’s world. It is an important aspect of security and forms the basis to many protocols that keep us safe. This module will help you understand what happens behind the scenes with these algorithms and how they are useful.
  • Network Security: Network security is the basis of Cybersecurity operations. In this module we will look at the common security implementations in place and what the common weaknesses are. We will learn about low hanging fruit, which are typically overlooked, and provide a great way to raise threat awareness.
  • Secure Protocols: This module is meant to help understand basic protocols and best practices needed to create a security-focused organization. The best offense is a defense. We will learn about the different tactics needed to raise the bar.
  • Symptoms of Compromise: By recognizing the symptoms of an attack, analysts can help stop them much sooner. Here we will cover what to expect in different scenarios so that you can diagnose the problem in an efficient manner. This analysis is key to understanding what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again in the future.
  • Cyber toolkits: A successful analyst has a wide arsenal of tools and knows how to effectively use them. In this module, we will teach you which tools are available and how to apply them for all the various security solutions and strategies.
  • Testing the Infrastructure: In this module, we will take a look at all the practical applications of attacking your own infrastructure to help defend it. We will teach you how to identify your organization’s own weaknesses such that you can help mitigate weaknesses and help define what changes need to be made.
  • And finally, Incident Response is a crucial approach on what to do in the event of a security breach. An organization needs the security team to have a playbook ready in times of crisis and know how to react to certain events. We will take a look at planning what is needed to be done.

To find out more about our Cyber Security program, click here.