How to Score a Security Clearance—and a Raise
By Paul Kaihla

(Business 2.0) – Tech workers trusted by Uncle Sam are in high demand. Government contractors, flush with more Homeland Security and Defense Department business than they can handle, are desperate for talent to tackle classified projects. Employees with security clearance at companies like SAIC and Lockheed Martin are seeing their paychecks swell by double digits as rival firms attempt to lure them away with fat signing bonuses. If you have the skills to land a high-security job, but not the clearance, now's the time to strike. Joining that elite workforce is easier than ever—the government is issuing thousands of interim clearances as it tries to plow through a massive backlog. Just keep these tips in mind.

BE WILLING TO STEP BACK TO MOVE FORWARD. You can't get a security clearance without a job offer, so just get a foot in the door, even if it means taking a position that seems beneath you. Typically, companies will put you on the payroll while your clearance is pending (the process can take anywhere from two months to two years) and move you up once you get approval.

UNDERSTAND THE OBSTACLES. There are six main levels of clearance, and the higher you go, the more exacting the background investigation. The lowest levels, confidential and secret, require you to fill out a questionnaire about your credit history, police record, past foreign travel, and psychological counseling. Investigators will lower the boom if they believe that you can't handle stress or are vulnerable to bribery. Starting at the middle level—secret with a special background investigation (SBI)—you may face a polygraph test, and interviewers will visit your friends, family, and colleagues to uncover potential concerns, including past and present marital or money issues.

DON'T ASSUME YOU'LL FLUNK. Blemishes that might have disqualified you before will be forgiven now that talent is scarce. Even a flirtation with pot will no longer shut the door. "If you smoked marijuana two years ago, no one is going to care," says an investigator who does background checks for the government. But if you've struggled with addiction or sold narcotics, you can still forget it.

DON'T LIE. Even on a questionnaire, don't bend the truth or omit anything. Did you rent a home for a mistress? Declare it. When the government learns about the love nest (and it will), you could get nailed for falsifying documents. That will look far worse than an affair, which in this climate isn't necessarily a deal breaker. After all, security clearance is all about trust. Er, at least between you and your employer. — PAUL KAIHLA