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More Than the Dress Code Changes in Shift From Dot-Com to Government Work

The government sector is heating up. In fact, federal agencies that defend the nation and the for-profit companies that serve them are the most active sources of jobs these days.

But some career experts wonder if D.C. area employees are prepared for a return to the buttoned-down lifestyle after a few years in the breezy space of Internet and telecommunications start-ups. Their refrain? It's a different world in there.

"It's not going to be a simple matter of taking people from the private sector and putting them to work for the government," cautioned Dave Tittle, co-founder of the Paul-Tittle Search Group, a McLean recruiting firm.

Companies that do business with federal agencies and military units often operate with a precision that clashes with the foosball-playing environments so many dot-coms promoted during boom times. What's more, the culture shift is likely to be expressed not only in terms of wardrobe (casual is out), but also in the relative age of one's peers and the scope of the work projects. It's a lot easier to get your hands dirty in a company of eight than in one of 8,000.

Government contracting shops sometimes attract folks with previous agency experience who come to the private sector as a second career. Elements of the military culture, from chain-of-command style leadership to the frequent use of acronyms, prevail. Leave your dog at home, but feel free to bring in the dog tags.

"It's almost as if there are two different cultural shifts," said David Langstaff, chief executive of Veridian Corp. in Arlington. "One, it's almost moving from the old dot-com culture back to reality. The second is moving from commercial to government clients."

Langstaff should know. In one Veridian division alone, 30 employees have boomeranged back to the firm after forays with start-up firms. Dozens of former dot-commers reside throughout the 5,000-person company. Langstaff said he looks not just for technical savvy, but also teamwork and customer-service savvy in his workforce, about half of which operates out of client offices.

But what many refugees really have trouble getting used to is the difference in compensation packages.

Gayle Levin, employment manager at McDonald Bradley Inc., a McLean firm that provides data analysis and other high-tech services to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Justice Department, among other clients, recalled that not long ago, a technical candidate told her he wanted to earn $110,000 a year. Levin parried with a maximum offer of $80,000 and talked about the benefits and flexible schedule her company offers.

The candidate took the job.

"The dot-com is the first boyfriend and we're the husband," Levin explained.

Even experienced workers who apply at contracting firms may be surprised at the reception they get. Many companies require employees to have security clearances, which grant workers access to protected client sites, documents and computer systems. Such clearances are costly and usually are arranged with the sponsorship of an employer.

Often, recruiter Tittle noted, foreign-born employees are ineligible for top clearances. A not-insignificant slice of the programmers and technical analysts who work in the country are here on business visas and do not hold U.S. citizenship, which rules them out for many security-focused jobs.

The clearance process can drag on for months, if not years, depending on backlogs at the Defense Security Service, the agency that handles clearances, and the level of security a project requires.

It's for that reason Northrop Grumman Information Technology in Herndon started a program last year to move electrical engineers and computer science graduates through a two-year rotation while their clearance paperwork is pending, said Jeff Shuman, the company's vice president for human resources.

"Clearances don't happen overnight," Shuman said. "Getting a young person to go through a very rigorous clearance process is not always the first thing they want to do when they finish their education."

Northrop Grumman's IT unit, which employs 9,000 people in the greater Washington region, aims to hire 800 engineers, information assurance experts, software developers and network administrators over the next year for its offices around the country. Its security unit alone received 18,000 résumés in the month after Sept. 11 -- a pace that Shuman attributes to the flagging economy and renewed interest in more government-oriented careers.

The shift toward government work couldn't be happening at a better time, as thousands of employees have soured on emerging companies and even more have received pink slips, Tittle noted.

"If this had been an abrupt cataclysmic event a year ago, it would have been more difficult," he said.

By Carrie Johnson
The Washington Post