Prepping for a security clearance

Uniform Secret Service Officers stand on the South Grounds as Marine One with U.S. President Barack Obama departs for Andrews Air Force Base on July 29, 2010 at the White House in Washington, D.C.

Tess Vigeland: The military's ongoing base realignment and closure process has some winners and losers. The latest round in 2005 shut down several bases and moved their operations elsewhere.

But the state of Maryland has been one of the winners. Thousands of defense industry jobs moved to the state, and they keep coming. How you do you prepare the local workforce for those jobs? Start young.

From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR in Baltimore, Amy Scott reports.


Video: Stop! You can't come in here.

Amy Scott: In a darkened classroom at Meade High School outside Baltimore, 14- and 15-year-olds watch a video. On the screen, truck drivers and security guards keep getting turned away from some top-secret location -- because they don't have a security clearance. That's the government seal of approval that lets workers access sensitive information.

Man in video: Did you know that one out of every 30 Americans works in a job that requires a security clearance?

Kid in video: I don't want to be a spy. Why should I care about any of this?

Because security clearances aren't just for spies, the video goes on to say, but for construction workers -- even janitors. And Maryland is going to need a lot more of them.

Penny Cantwell: With all the baby boomers that are retiring, with the large influx of jobs that are going to come here, we will need homegrown students to be able to accommodate that.

Penny Cantwell is with the Fort Meade Alliance. The group represents the various government agencies, defense contractors and other businesses in the Fort Meade area.

The video is part of a new program the Alliance created to teach Maryland schoolchildren about security clearances. Cantwell says jobs that require a clearance pay better.

Cantwell: So those students need to be aware that if you want to make more money, then you have to have the type of lifestyle that will allow you to get a clearance.

What type of lifestyle? Pretty squeaky clean. Back in her classroom, teacher Tina Edler runs down a list of questions: Do you take drugs? Spend more money than you have? Are you an impulse buyer?

Tina Edler: Do you download music or videos illegally?

Students write their answers on pink sheets of paper.

Edler: OK, so raise your hand if you answered yes to at least one of those questions.

All but a few hands go up.

Edler: The mere fact that you guys have answered yes to one of those questions could mean that if you were to apply for a security clearance, you may have an issue.

For these high school freshmen, any real job decisions are a long way off. But several students are already thinking about careers in law enforcement.

Marc Long plans to go to college, and then law school.

Marc Long: And then after that, going into the FBI.

Scott: What do you want to do in the FBI?

Long: Basically help the victims. Be in the victims task force.

Scott: Why? How did you learn about that job?

TV, naturally.

Long: Um, Law and Order. I like the Special Victims Unit a lot. So I want to work with the victims and help solve some crimes.

Long says he hasn't done anything illegal yet. He does worry a little bit about peer pressure. But Penny Cantwell says a few mistakes in high school won't rule out a top-secret job.

Cantwell: Maybe you smoked pot or you plagiarize a paper. By creating that awareness, we're hoping that people will say well, if I can make more money and I can have a better career, then I'm going to make some changes that will be beneficial in my life.

And if students have a little extra incentive to behave, it doesn't hurt the school either. Again, teacher Tina Edler.

Edler: The one thing that I really love about teaching this content is that I'm allowed to have those courageous conversations that never take place in the classroom.

This fall, those conversations will take place across the county starting in the 7th grade.

In Fort Meade, Md., I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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