Public sector employers are experiencing shortages of IT contractors with the security clearance needed to work on sensitive networking projects.
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Demand for IT contractors with security clearance has increased significantly over the past year, as departments roll out initiatives to join up different parts of government.
The trend is creating shortages, which are delaying projects and pushing up contract rates, recruitment specialists said.
"There is a huge shortage of people with security clearance in the public sector, especially in the project support arena. There is a shortage of security-cleared candidates with all skills, but we are seeing a bigger demand and a declining pool," said Byran Corke, head of public sector IT recruitment at Hudson.
The demand has been driven by a raft of projects in criminal intelligence, criminal justice, joined-up government initiatives, cross-government drives to improve IT efficiency and work on the critical national infrastructure.
The public sector is increasingly having to compete with the private sector, particularly financial firms, which have begun recruiting high-level IT people in larger numbers as IT investment increases.
"Demand has gone up at least 20% in the past year, without a shadow of a doubt," said Darren Nichols, public sector director at Rethink Recruitment. Daily rates for skilled security-cleared IT contractors have increased from £600 to £750 or more, over the past 12 months, he said.
Simon Church, director at Parity, said shortages were exacerbated because public sector organisations were increasingly seeking security-cleared staff with business skills as well as IT skills.
"We are finding more and more people are coming to us saying, what experienced people do you have who are security cleared," he said.
Tight project deadlines mean that public sector bodies are reluctant to hire contractors with the right skills and put them through security clearances, which can take weeks or months to complete, according to recruitment agencies.
"The only way they can find staff is to hire people who are already working in the public sector, find people who have just left, or are working for firms with security clearance anyway," said Philip Virgo, strategic adviser to the Institute for the Management of Information Systems.
Security clearance levels
Basic checks (BC) - Basic checks are performed to confirm the identity of a person.
Counter-terrorist check (CTC) - This check gives people access to government buildings where there is a specific threat from terrorism, but not to protectively marked assets such as classified documents.
Security check (SC) - This is the most widely-held clearance. It is needed for jobs involving long-term, frequent and uncontrolled access to secret assets and information, and occasional and controlled access to top-secret assets and information. A contractor's clearances are normally reviewed after five years.
Developed vetting (DV) - This higher level of security clearance is needed for the most sensitive jobs and tasks, involving long-term and uncontrolled access to top-secret information. Developed vetting clearances are regularly reviewed.
Source: Defence Vetting Agency