What’s a Security Clearance?
As a military member, did you know that your active security clearance is your passport to the civilian working world? A security clearance is an authorization that grants permission for U.S. citizens to access classified information, documents, or restricted areas necessary to perform the duties and responsibilities of their job. From government employers to private contractors and in between, a security clearance is needed for a wide variety of jobs.
Even though most military members hold a security clearance, this does not apply to every Veteran. Since many security clearances expire 2 years after leaving the military, it’s important for you to know the ins and outs of a security clearance during the job hunt.
Empire Resume will discuss the various security clearances so you can learn:
- Three Classification Levels of Clearance
- The Background Investigation: Determining Whether to Grant Clearance
- Positions Requiring Top-Secret Security Clearance
- Highest Paying Clearance Jobs
- Employers Requiring Security Clearance
- Stages of the Security Clearance Process
- Reasons for Security Clearance Denial or Revocation
- Best Tips for Applying for Security Clearance
Three Classification Levels of Clearance
As the Department of State says, “The purpose of a security clearance is to determine that a person is able and willing to safeguard classified national security information, based on his or her loyalty, character, trustworthiness and reliability.”
Security clearances are issued and sponsored by United States government agencies, including the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Energy (DoE), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The U.S. Department of State’s website as well as Executive Order 13526 lists the three federal clearances at each level and their meaning from lowest to highest:
Unauthorized disclosure could cause damage to national security.
This is the most fundamental, basic clearance level. It must be reinvestigated every 15 years.
Unauthorized disclosure could cause serious damage to national security.
The process for obtaining secret clearance is more rigorous than its confidential counterpart.
Upon filling out an SF-86 form, the Questionnaire for National Security, you can expect investigators to give your listed references and former employers a call. You’ll also be under a microscope when it comes to suspicious travels, outstanding debts, or criminal convictions.
Upon obtaining a Secret security clearance, the clearance background investigation is considered current for a period of 10 years or up to 2 years after leaving the last job that required the clearance, whichever comes first.
3. Top Secret
Unauthorized disclosure could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security.
Obtaining a top-secret clearance requires candidates to undergo a lengthy background investigation, including criminal records check, drug testing, a polygraph and psychological evaluation.
At this clearance level, investigators will dig thoroughly into your financial records to discover any fraudulent activity. They’ll also go the extra mile of getting in touch with your neighbors, family, friends, listed references, and former colleagues. You won’t be granted this advanced level unless your record is squeaky clean, which is determined by a background check (SSBI).
A Top-Secret clearance background investigation must be completed every 5 years to keep an active clearance. If you don’t already have clearance, the chances of starting at this level are slim to none. However, you can work your way up if you prove your competence and trustworthiness in a Secret-cleared position.
You may notice some jobs call for a TS/SCI clearance. TS/SCI stands for Top Secret Sensitive Compartmentalized Information. This is the highest level of security, which provides access to specific intelligence information and capabilities.
The clearance levels above allow access to classified national security information or other restricted data at the level of clearance and for any clearance level below it. However, need-to-know is always a determining factor in what information a security clearance provides access to.
The Background Investigation: Determining Whether to Grant Clearance
Security clearances are a major part of the federal hiring process and even for other civilian positions. All security clearances begin with the completion of a questionnaire and an investigation spanning the last 10 years of an individuals’ background.
The investigation includes a national records check, credit check, and interviews with employers (former and current) and people who know the candidate based on the information contained in the questionnaire. Determining whether to grant a security clearance is based upon these guidelines:
- Allegiance to the U.S.
- Foreign Influence
- Foreign Preference
- Sexual Behavior
- Personal Conduct
- Financial Considerations
- Alcohol Consumption
- Drug Involvement
- Emotional, Mental, and Personality Disorders
- Criminal Conduct
- Security Violations
- Misuse of Information Technology Systems
How long does it take to get cleared?
Based on our research, it can take anywhere from 30 days to 24 months to complete clearance. The length of time it takes from beginning to end depends on the type of security clearance, which federal agency is involved, and the presence of significant unfavorable information about the applicant.
Can I get my own clearance?
Another common question is whether a person can get a security clearance on their own. The answer here is no. You must be sponsored by a government entity listed above or a cleared government contractor.
Positions Requiring Clearance
Although most jobs that require security clearance are government or military positions, many civilian contractors in industries related to government work, such as aerospace engineers or weapons manufacturers, must also have clearance to access data or conduct testing.
Many people who require security clearance hold positions within the intelligence industry, such as intelligence analysts or software administrators. Even custodial personnel, secretaries, security officers, librarians, system administrators, and computer-support personnel who have access to classified documents or systems at top-secret facilities need to have security clearance to perform their duties.
In general, your level of clearance varies depending on your responsibilities, skills, and the type of information or facilities you have access to.
Clearance jobs present great opportunities for high pay and job security. After all, Veterans with a security clearance present a win-win for the Veteran and the company. Below are the jobs and industries usually requiring top secret security clearance:
- Intelligence positions at the CIA, DIA, NSA, and FBI
- Military jobs employing civilian personnel
- Government contractors
- Technical jobs
- Emergency Management
- Business Security not related to IT
Highest Paying Clearance Jobs
According to ClearanceJobs, the largest marketplace focusing its recruiting efforts solely on professionals with U.S. federal government security clearances, the benefits of a security clearance include lucrative positions and job security.
In its 2021 Security Clearance Compensation Report, ClearanceJobs shared, “Business sales ($132,035) topped the lists for high paying jobs, with engineering and IT categories right behind. The cleared tech industry dominates the category of six-figure salary occupations, with the majority of IT and engineering positions paying over $100,000, on average.
Systems engineers ($131,613), IT software ($127,482), and IT data science ($120,986) are top paying tech fields. Management rounds out the top five highest paying cleared jobs with average compensation of $124,854. When it comes to the industries offering the highest compensation, the intelligence community prevails, with average compensation of $129,131.”
Employers Requiring Security Clearance
Many employers require security clearances on all levels, including:
- Northrup Grumman
- Booze Allen Hamilton
- Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Space Force facilities
In the event you’re thinking about becoming one of the top people in U.S. Government in the future, here’s something that you should know:
Security clearances are not mandated for the President, Vice President, Congress, Supreme Court Justices, or other constitutional officers – that’s 546 people to be exact. As “constitutional officers,” the Constitution lays out the qualifications for each of these offices. No law or executive order can add additional restrictions, according to the U.S. Constitution. The vote of the American people and election to office is all the clearance they need.
Stages of the Security Clearance Process
Below are the five key stages of the security clearance process, and what you can expect at each point.
- Pre-investigation: After the sponsoring agency or company determines that classified information is needed to perform the duties and responsibilities required of the position, the individual will be required to fill out and submit a standard form 86 (SF-86), the questionnaire for national security positions.
- Investigation: During this phase the applicant will be subjected to a background investigation based on the information that was provided in their clearance application materials. The depth and scope of the background investigation typically depends on the level of clearance being sought by the applicant.
- Adjudication: Upon completion of the background investigation, the application enters the adjudication phase where a determination will be made as to whether to grant the applicant a security clearance.
- Appeals: This stage only applies if, for one reason or another, the sponsoring agency decides not to grant security clearance to a candidate. If this is the case, then the candidate can appeal the unfavorable decision and possibly be granted reconsideration for security clearance by the agency.
- Reinvestigation: Security clearance holders are subject to periodic reinvestigations to maintain their clearance.
Reasons for Security Clearances Getting Denied
There are many reasons security clearances get denied or revoked. Federal regulations identify factors that will normally result in denial or revocation of a clearance, including:
- Criminal history or legal issues
- Bad credit or significant debt
- Potential for foreign influence
- Missing employment information
- Missing financial information
- Incomplete references
- Discrepancies in date and place of birth
- Failure to submit authorization, release, or certification forms
- Failure to include complete residence information
- Insufficient education information
- Personal behavior and conduct
- Drug involvement
- Inappropriate social media use
Social Media & Security Clearances
Many people are unaware how internet activity, such as social media use, affects their chances of getting a security clearance. How you use social media has the potential to literally impact every aspect of your life.
What you post on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other forms of social media are analyzed and used by investigators during the background check process for security clearances. At Empire Resume, we advise you to be mindful of what you’re sharing and keep your social media employer friendly. You want to ensure that you’re keeping your information clean, professional, and respectable so you don’t put your possibility of having a security clearance granted in jeopardy.
For more information, be sure to review an article by Military Times entitled can social media posts hurt my security clearance?
Best Tips for Applying for Security Clearance
Always ensure you’re truthful and thorough in applying for a security clearance. There are no shortcuts or ways around to investigating your suitability, loyalty, character, trustworthiness, and reliability to access sensitive and classified information.
Finally, be sure to watch out for scammers. Beware of bogus companies offering to “pre-approve” you for a security clearance for a fee. The security clearance should not bear any financial burden and you shouldn’t have to pay out of pocket.
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Dr. Phillip Gold is President/CEO of Empire Resume and has vast experience writing resumes for both professionals and servicemembers transitioning from the military into civilian roles. He served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and was responsible for leading nuclear missile security. Phillip is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and holds a BA in Communications from The Ohio State University, an MS in Instructional Technology, an MBA in Finance, and a PhD in Finance.