Languishing Linguists

Why can't 2,000 Arabic speakers get jobs with an intelligence agency?

When Evan Lesser hears officials lament the lack of skilled linguists in the intelligence community, he gets frustrated. That's because he knows where to find about 2,000 Arabic speakers, 475 who can speak Farsi and another 250 or so who know Pashto. Lesser has their résumés, and is trying to find them new jobs.

He is the founder and director of ClearanceJobs.com, a Web site that matches employers with U.S. citizens who already have government security clearances. It's important to emphasize that last part: ClearanceJobs will not post a résumé from anyone who doesn't already have an active clearance with a government agency, which is hard to get and can take more than a year. In effect, these people-who speak the languages the intelligence community needs most in its repertoire-have overcome the biggest barrier to entry in the spy business.

"We have literally thousands of them ready to go to work," he says. "These are not people who had a clearance in the '60s or '70s. These people are cleared and ready to go."

If what Lesser says is true, they do seem like the people officials say they've been desperately seeking. For starters, many would prefer to work for a government agency, even though they'll likely earn a lower salary than a contractor could offer. Government benefits and retirement packages are more attractive to these workers, Lesser says. A lot of them also like that agencies have definitive, laid-out plans for promotion and advancement.

Many of Lesser's job seekers have served in the armed forces, and now work for contractors. He's noticed a pattern. Younger workers come directly out of military service and want to work for large contractors. But generally, it's the contractors that want to work for agencies. "This is truly the most common thing we see," he says.

The majority of the 117,000 job seekers are men, Lesser says, about 70 percent. And their skills run the gamut from air conditioner repair to microbiology, logistics, information technology ("We have tons of IT," Lesser says) to people experienced in contract management, administration, finance, accounting and, especially now, intelligence analysis. Depending on the type of intelligence work - human, all source and so on - there are 5,000 to 8,000 cleared intelligence analysts in his database.

Given everything Lesser has to offer, one might imagine intelligence hiring officials would have long since beaten down his door. But the response has been tepid.

It's not so much uninterest, Lesser thinks, but red tape. Large companies, such as IBM, have used ClearanceJobs and "within a day start making hires," he says. "The government is not so easy." The hiring process at a federal agency is a drawn-out, regulated affair, requiring longer applications and more background checks.

The government also runs its own recruitment site, USAJOBS.gov, so it could be that agencies are just more comfortable using that re-source. Intelligence divisions also have their own electronic job boards to which applicants can submit résumés. But those people don't necessarily have security clearances, and once they're hired, the employees effectively are sidelined as they wait for them.

Lesser applauds Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell's push to speed up the clearance process-one of his top priorities. But given the long, tortured history of reform, Lesser fears a decade could pass before it takes even as long as six months to obtain the coveted status.

In the meantime, if he had 15 minutes to talk to the new DNI, he'd probably bring along stacks of brochures and business cards. "I would say simply, 'You guys have got to find a way to utilize services like these,' " he says.

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.

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