How To Get Secret Clearance For A Job

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 21, 2020

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Does the idea of having security clearance get you excited? I mean, you could finally figure out what’s going on at Area 51 or learn who shot Kennedy. The possibilities are endless, right?

Well, no, they’re not, not really. Security clearance does give you access to secret, secured, proprietary, and other guarded information, but you won’t suddenly have all the answers.

The government typically requires security clearances, but some private contractors also have this stipulation attached to certain jobs. If you don’t have a security clearance, it doesn’t mean you can’t get the job and shouldn’t apply. It means that you could be hired but won’t be given the job until you get a security clearance.

Since you can’t get this authorization on your own, let’s discuss it a little and see what it entails.

Who Needs a Security Clearance?

Security clearances are typically a requirement for government jobs. Not all government jobs, but some. And it’s usually not as glamorous as you would think.

Most people who have security clearance are working regular jobs – no, they’re not spies – they just happen to work in a secured building or have access to classified documents or systems. The list of jobs that require security clearance includes:

  • Secretary

  • Librarian

  • Software developer

  • Engineer

  • System administrator

  • Security officer

  • Aerospace engineer

  • Weapons manufacturer

  • Polygraph examiner

  • IT help desk

  • Forensics specialist

  • Custodial positions

This list is by no means exhaustive, but you can see that some of the positions might require you to have access to secret technology. Other security level positions just need you to be cleared to be in the building.

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Also, most security jobs are done for the government and on a federal level, but that’s not the only place hiring. You may find that state and perhaps even some local areas need security-cleared personnel. But you’ll find that some civilian jobs or public sector companies need security-approved employees.

The government simply cannot run every business that it needs – they hire contractors. From aviation specialists working on engineering new aerospace tech to plumbers who come in and maintain the buildings, these jobs are done by trusted and vetted outside contractors. And those contractors have secure employees who are trusted in these sensitive areas.

Levels of Security Clearance

You’re probably wondering how a secretary, custodian, and plumber can be required to get a security clearance. And is it the same as what a cyber coder or a spy is required to obtain? The answer is no.

Federal positions are classified in three ways:

  1. Non-sensitive positions

  2. Public trust positions

  3. National security positions

Each position requires a background investigation, but an electronic investigation is good enough for the least sensitive of those. For secret clearance, interviews with people you’re associated with now and were connected to in the past are done. The U.S. government lists four types of national security positions.

  • Confidential. These people have access or work in a building that manages data that could potentially cause some damage to national security if disclosed. This is the most common form of clearance, and it’s considered the basic level. Even so, clearance must be reviewed and renewed every 15 years.

  • Secret. The next step on the security ladder is secret clearance, which describes information that would cause serious damage to national security if exposed. Because this information is more valuable or more detrimental if disclosed, this level of clearance requires reinvestigation every ten years.

  • Top Secret. The most secure level of clearance is top secret. Exposure of this data could cause grave damage to national security if released. These people are reinvestigated for clearance every five years.

  • Sensitive Compartmentalized Information. Sensitive Compartmentalized Information is given to people with top-secret clearance (it’s actually a subcategory) on a need-to-know basis. Additional qualifications are necessary for this level of clearance, and an additional non-disclosure agreement is required.

Interim Security Clearance

There is also a category of Interim Security Clearance. This is the in-between stage where you’ve been offered and accepted a position, but you’re waiting for your final security clearance to be approved. It’s important to note that this clearance still requires some of the investigative checks to be done.

When you have this clearance level, it’s only temporary and may limit the amount or type of work you can do. But security clearances can take some time to complete, especially the higher-level ones, so this opens the door to more immediate employment.

Security Eligibility Factors

So, what are they looking at when they’re investigating you? That’s an excellent question. There are some things that they’re definitely scrutinizing, and then there are some factors that they’re not allowed to consider. Race is one of the factors they can’t consider, and you can understand why.

  • Eligibility Determining Factors. Expect the government to look pretty deeply into the following determinations:

    • Stability

    • Trustworthiness

    • Reliability

    • Discretion

    • Character

    • Honesty

    • Judgment

    • Loyalty to the United States

  • Non-Determining Factors. These are not part of the determination, and the United States federal government goes so far as to state that they do not discriminate on the basis of:

    • Race

    • Color

    • Religion

    • Sex

    • National origin

    • Disability

    • Sexual orientation

Do You Get Automatic Security Clearance if You’re in the Military?

The short answer is no. One misconception is that everyone who is in the military obtains a security clearance. You do not automatically get a security clearance if you join a branch of the United States military.

That said, many people who do join the military go into fields where security clearance is required. They’ll get their clearance through an investigation, just like a civilian would. The benefit is they’re also being trained and sometimes for a specific field while this is happening. If they decide to leave the military, they already have this clearance, and it might make it easier for them to obtain a job that requires it.

It makes them automatically eligible to begin working and saves the employer the time and effort of going through the background checks.

What to Expect When Getting a Security Clearance

The government will look at several factors and dive into your background to see how loyal you are to the United States. They’ll check on what foreign influences you might have, your integrity and honesty, whether you’re mentally and psychologically stable, your criminal past, past drug use/misuse, and your financial background. Basically, every part of your life is up for scrutiny.

You’ll begin the process by completing a lengthy questionnaire called Personnel Security Questionnaire (SF-86).

The next phase depends on the level of clearance you’re seeking and the position you’re applying for. But one of the government’s investigative departments will be investigating you. For the most secure positions, they’ll be interviewing your neighbors, employers, friends, family, and even people from way back in your life. The lowest security level jobs will not have any associate interviews.

No matter what level of clearance you’re seeking, you can expect to be interviewed. This is a part of the process for everyone. But some people will have more than one interview.

One thing to note – the SF-86 is crucial. If you want to be approved and have it completed in the most expeditious manner possible, you need to be very detailed and honest. This is not a job application or a resume. It’s certainly not the time to gloss over some things or exaggerate others. Any discrepancies between what you wrote in the SF-86 and the investigation can be cause for a denied or delayed application.

Steps of Security Clearance

Now that you have an idea of what will happen during the security clearance review, these are the steps according to the U.S. Department of State.

  • You receive an offer of employment that is conditionally related to your completion and acceptance for clearance. You will get a Questionnaire for National Security Positions, a Questionnaire for Non-Sensitive Positions, or the Questionnaire for Public Trust positions, and other forms.

  • The hiring office submits the information they’ve collected, which is your security package, to the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) for review.

  • DSS reviews the information, opens a background investigation, checks fingerprints, corroborated information about your past, and may interview your associates.

  • You may be interviewed face-to-face by a DSS member.

  • The DSS determines your eligibility.

  • The DSS contacts the hiring authority, and they will contact you.

What If Your Application for Security Clearance Is Denied?

It depends on why you were denied.

Not being thorough and honest in your SF-86 is a common reason for denial. Once people are interviewed, and the government does its background checks, they can find discrepancies. It’s kind of human nature to gloss over things; in fact, that’s what you’re told to do for your resume. But this situation requires complete honesty and transparency.

There are other, more serious reasons you might be denied security access. And sometimes, there’s simply no recourse because you’re not considered a good candidate.

If you are denied security clearance, you will receive information about why and you’ll also be given the procedure for filing an appeal. Follow the steps for your particular appeal to restart the process.

You might also find that your security clearance renewal has been denied. In this situation, you’ll also receive information that details how to appeal it. In the appeal process, you’ll be able to address all of the concerns that were raised.

Length of Security Clearance Effectiveness

As mentioned above, there are different term lengths for security clearances. Confidential clearance lasts for 15 years, secret clearance has a 10-year time period, and top-secret personnel can expect to be reviewed every five years.

People working with sensitive compartmentalized information are top secret level clearance personnel, so they will have their clearance reviewed every five years. But their particular project may be valid for less time.

Individuals with interim security clearances can expect to be in this category for a short period, usually a matter of weeks or months. Then they will either be approved or denied their official level of security clearance.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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