Scene from a recruiting analytics presentation: The defense contracting client had several cleared vacancies but could not fill them. Data analysis showed that the firm’s salary was $30,000 lower than what people who met the requirements were making. The Program Manager rejected any higher compensation and said “cut the years required from 10-12 down to 2-4″. The company filled all its cleared openings within a few weeks.

Why would an experienced PM do this? How could he expect to do the job with so much less experience on the team? Simple answer – he wanted to keep the contract.

The impact of sequestration and budget cuts has been especially noticeable in pay cuts in defense and intel contracting in the past year plus. Total contract revenue is down in extensions, renewals, and new contracts. Current employees are being asked to take pay cuts of 20-45%. New hires are often offered salaries that are much lower than they were a few years ago. This is widespread among career fields and contractors.

We forget how much expansion in jobs and pay there has been in the last decade. We are not anywhere near the bubble’s bust, but the impact feels similar to many cleared job seekers.

What Does that Mean to You

1. Talk with recruiters, hiring managers in your network, and people you are connected to in your field. Ask each about market conditions and current salary offers in your field. Learn all you can so you understand your current market value and whether it is different than you think.

2. Look at salary survey data with a cautious eye. Even the best data is likely to be 6-12 months old. Much of that available for free online is lots older. It may not show the current pay rates. One recent salary survey of cleared jobholders showed pay as flat in 2013 over 2012. Since it included many people who were on existing contracts that had not been up for renewal or extension, it was difficult to tell how much specific positions were now paying.

3. Look at your skills carefully. Have you been keeping up with changes in your field and the market? All of us are responsible for our own careers and that means you have to invest in yourself to upgrade your skills. If you have not, get going! Read What You Can Do About the Winter of the Cleared Job Market.

If you have the ‘hot’ skills and have kept learning – does your resume clearly demonstrate those facts?

Recruiters and hiring managers search for people using specific search terms – 1-3 technology or skill terms and maybe a title or relevant agency. Your resume needs to match those keywords to be found. Check out job listings and company information to customize your resume.

4. These times are really tough for many defense and intel contractors. Reach out and help others. Grow your network. Refer people you know for jobs whenever you can. Both agency and corporate recruiters appreciate great leads and remember you for future potential. Keep your whining offline too – don’t mess up your reputation.

5. Watch your finances. If your contract is coming up for renewal or being rebid, take a good look at cutting your costs and increasing your emergency savings now.

6. If you are out of a job, chop your costs immediately. And think about what skills you have that are transferable outside defense and intel contracting. Don’t necessarily ‘pull the plug’ – but do your research and consider a back-up plan.

Originally published in