1. What is defense contracting, and what does it mean if I am hired on a defense contract?
Defense contracting is very simple: a commercial company has bid and won a contract to provide services to the U.S. government. The type of work is either professional services (personnel, i.e. software developers, managers, linguists), or supplies (computers, internet service, food, vehicles, pencils, etc.).
If you are hired to work on a government contract, this usually means your company is billing for your professional services on a contract they have bid on and won with the government. The cost of maintaining your employment (your hourly rate, overtime, benefits, pay raises, and overhead) is calculated by the company when they submit their proposal. Because of this, the salaries and benefits for different companies, or even different contracts for the same company, can vary for your position.
As a former program manager, I have advised my employees to keep in mind that defense contracting salaries can be up to 30% higher than commercial or government salaries, but less stable. Because contracts can end abruptly or not extended through the option years. Often there is a lull in contract awards depending on the fiscal year timeframes. Also, promotion in the defense contracting world is almost non-existent within the same contract because of the pre-set contract position and pay structure; it is likely that you may need to change contracts or companies to advance in your career for new opportunities.
My recommendation is you should seriously consider living 10-20% below your means, no matter how peachy your current contract outlook is. Save 6 months of salary and always keep your resume and contacts up to date.
2. What are the different clearance levels?
Security clearances for the U.S. government are generally (from lowest to highest) Secret, Top Secret, and Top Secret/ Secret Compartmented Information (TS/SCI). The higher the security clearance (and the more clandestine the organization), the longer and more rigorous the background check (or SSBI). For example, a Department of State clearance may take 3 – 6 months to process; a CIA clearance may take over one year.
There are other clearance levels as well, such as interim (temporary) clearances, or higher access clearances for particular missions within different organizations. Each organization and each contract has its own clearance requirements; if you already have the clearance required (which is sometimes specified on the job posting) this is the best option, but it may take a little time for the organization to confirm your clearance.
In addition, some companies will provide you with a contingent offer until your clearance is secured. It may not make sense to resign from your current position and company until the contingency is removed from the offer of employment.
3. I just got out of the military, is my clearance still active?
Unless your military clearance has been revoked (usually for disciplinary reasons), it is usually active. However, unless your contract is for the DOD, your clearance will need to be transferred to the organization, such as the DOJ or other agency. This usually takes just as long as a regular background check, but can be somewhat shorter.
4. How long is a clearance and SCI active for?
Your clearance is usually good for 5 years after the clearance was granted. If you have an SCI, it will become inactive within 2 years. If you are working on a cleared contract, the government will usually renew your clearance up to the level required by the contract by conducting a new background investigation.
5. How do I get a security clearance?
There are two ways to get a clearance. First, you can be hired directly by the government organization and they will conduct a background check and grant you a clearance. Second, the company has a contract which the government has agreed to run a background check and grant a clearance for employees who will work on that contract.
Companies do not pay the government for a background check; it is considered a requirement of the position and government rather than a “bonus” to the company if you have the clearance required.
6. Is there anything I can do to prepare for my background check?
The first thing I would recommend is to run a credit check on all three credit agencies. A credit report can help you in three ways:
1. To double check for false information (or identity theft!) and to have it corrected by contacting the credit agency (sometimes you should check with the creditor first to make the correction and then the credit agency a few weeks later.)
2. Identify any outstanding or delinquent debt, past and present- you will be asked about it! It’s very important that you bring all of your accounts current. At the very least, you need to have a payment plan in place to bring it current, optimally by the time you have your background check started.
3. Residence and employment history: You will be required to list your address and employment history, sometimes as far back as 10 years or your 16th birthday. If you have moved or traveled, your credit report can be helpful in listing these; you will also need the dates you lived or worked.
Background checks ensure that an individual is sound and is a law-abiding citizen. That said, it is important to stress that any illegal activities, to include any kind of drug use within several years can exclude you from being granted a security clearance.
You will also be required to list all travel outside of the U.S., any other country’s embassy visits within the U.S., full contact information for each job: including a supervisor’s specific work location), and at each address (someone unrelated to you who knew you), as well as three references. It’s a good idea to begin collecting this information.
Important! Once you’ve filled out your background check paperwork (such as the E-QUIP), always save an electronic copy and print out a few hard copies before submitting it and keep these safe. Background check information has a tendency to disappear!
7. What websites should I be looking for work?
For cleared work, we highly recommend putting up your resume and searching for jobs on Cleared Jobs, Intelligence Careers and Military Hire. You can also search for government jobs on USA Jobs and for other cleared jobs on Craiglist under the government jobs section in an area where there are government or contract jobs (i.e., D.C.).
The best way to find work is through a direct, personal connection, preferably to a recruiter. Use Linked In to search for connections you may have to existing employees at a defense contracting company and request them to refer you to a recruiter. Attend a cleared Tech Expo and bring several copies of your resume to meet face-to-face with company representatives. Make a list of defense contracting companies and register directly in their jobs database.
If you have language expertise, you should explore working as a freelance translator/interpreter for a company, such as STI.
A word to the wise about recruiters that are calling you for a contract they are bidding on; do not ever wait for a contract to be awarded and do not count it as a viable job prospect. The proposal submission and contracts award process is a lengthy and unpredictable process. You may choose to allow them to list your resume on their proposal (hopefully this means they will then present you with a job offer should they be awarded it), but be aware that this may make you unavailable to other competing companies that may have viable job openings.
8. What length and format is best for my resume?
The best resumes I’ve seen are two pages, 12 font, and have a summary of experience (these are 3-4 major strengths you will showcase in each of your jobs), a listing of your jobs with position title, dates, and company and 4-5 bullet points describing your duties and experience, and then a section for education, computer skills, foreign languages, and clearance levels.
For former military, the most common issue I’ve seen in resumes is- you don’t give yourself enough credit! Most military folks have managed projects or personnel, created and implemented programs, and provided oversight and management- these kinds of strong actions words need to be used. Avoid using passive descriptions such as “administered” or “tracked documentation”- I assure you, you have more managerial experience related to the commercial arena then you know.
Don’t be afraid to write your resume using military and government jargon such as responsibilities, titles, and projects. If you are working in a cleared job, this vocabulary is familiar to headhunters.
The internet has great articles and can provide some helpful insight with resume writing/enhancement.
9. What is the difference between a contracting position, a 1099 consultant and regular employment?
Regular employment: also called “PMO” or “in-house” staff, this means you work directly for a company; your services are “overhead” and not billed on a government contract. Salaries and benefits are commensurate with the commercial sector, although having government contract experience and a clearance can elevate you to a program or contracts manager position which is higher than your defense contracting salary- and often requires a lot more midnight oil.
Contracting position: as mentioned previously, being a defense contractor means you are employed by a company which is billing the government for your hourly services. A standard contract in the DC area will be 40 hours per week and benefits will include 2 weeks paid vacation, 10 holiday and sick days, health care, and if you are fortunate, tuition reimbursement and additional perks. It is very important to ask what the overtime and comp time policy on your contract will be; optimally, you would be paid for overtime hours and given comp time as well- and have this included in our Offer letter. Unfortunately, many employees don’t find out what the contract policy is until they are being requested to work an additional 20 hours a week with no compensation
1099 Consultant or freelance/ independent contractor: often this is offered as an alternative if you are negotiating for a higher salary. If you own your own company, it may be beneficial because you can begin collecting past performance clients. Don’t be fooled by the higher salary however; you need to take into account that this income will be taxed (you will have to make tax arrangements yourself, often a higher tax amount and more complicated and frequent basis). You also need to consider that this income will include the cost of vacation and sick time, medical care, tuition and perks and insurance coverage particular to a 1099. Once you’ve compared a defense contracting offer to a 1099 consultant offer, you may find that is it less money or at the very least, not worth the hassle of 1099 paperwork
*Note: An Offer Letter is a formal offer from the company which specifies title, salary, benefits, and start date. You should have a signed offer letter before you start any permanent plans for the job, i.e. give notice or move. As mentioned earlier, contingent offers are not firm offers.
10. How do I get promoted in defense contracting?
Some of the larger size companies are becoming more adept at building career tracks into their defense contracts, but it is rare. You may be able to be promoted within the contract or company contracts from 2-5 years; more often, however, people go from contract to contract either within the same company or outside, as their skills and performance levels (and salary requirements!) progress.
In the past, I have seen that a very good defense contracting company offer will generally have, a yearly performance review, a holiday bonus, and a 3% salary raise to at least cover the cost of inflation for a stateside position. A high-end yearly raise may be around 6% or more; very good companies will have more frequent reviews, awards and recognition, and bonuses in addition pay raises.
As stated previously, contracts can vary from company to company and from contract to contract within a company, depending on what the company agreed to provide in their proposal.
If your position is overseas, you should be provided hazardous pay, full insurance, disability, and life insurance options, and at least one ticket back to the United States per year.
Last but not least, we welcome your suggestions on this post! Information is constantly being updated in the defense contracting world and we welcome your thoughts.