Fort Meade's rapid growth in the past few years has made it the state's largest employer, but getting a foot in the door — or, rather, inside the guarded fence line — can be daunting.
Many of the Army installation's 56,000 jobs require a security clearance. And though it's one base, Fort Meade contains 95 employers, including the National Security Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency.
When local officials held an event last week to demystify Fort Meade hiring, 300 people showed up, armed with notebooks and resumes. The crowd was a testament to how complex the hiring process seems from the outside, particularly for job seekers who have never applied for a federal job.
"It has been like pulling teeth with no anesthetic, getting my resume noticed," said Debra Godsey, a Rosedale resident who hopes to land a job at Fort Meade training child-care workers there.
She sat in the front row of Arundel High School's auditorium Thursday night, the better to ask questions of a panel of Fort Meade experts. She got a hot tip: Bullet points, de rigueur in private-sector resumes, are a nonstarter on the federal government's usajobs.gov site.
"The No. 1 thing that you have to remember is that we are not like the private sector," said Miguel Ortiz, director of the Civilian Personnel Advisory Center at Fort Meade.
Panelists told the crowd that veterans get a leg up in hiring. Still, potential applicants should not shy away if they're not veterans, said Jennifer Ackerman, director of human resources at Defense Media Activity, one of the organizations that moved to Fort Meade in the last round of nationwide base restructuring.
Fort Meade may be awash in employees with security clearances, but plenty of jobs there don't require them. And for those positions that do, job seekers generally don't need a clearance to apply, panelists told the audience. (It's a sign of how much angst exists about the process that this point was repeated about a half-dozen times.)
"What's required is the ability to obtain a security clearance," said Betty Smith, a human resources manager with federal contractor Chugach Federal Solutions.
Fort Meade is the Army's third-largest installation, the size of a small city, with a population equal to Bowie's. The complex ballooned in recent years, both from growth at longtime tenant agencies and from the base realignment and closure process known as BRAC, which moved about 5,700 jobs to the base. BRAC ended just over a year ago.
The installation expanded so fast, in fact, that base officials can't say with complete certainty just how much. They're confident that about 56,000 people work on the base nowadays. But the estimated 30,000 jobs in 2007 probably was an undercount, said Chad Jones, a spokesman for the base.
Given Fort Meade's size, it's no surprise the base is of great interest to local officials trying to reduce the ranks of the unemployed. Workforce development agencies from Anne Arundel and Howard counties organized Thursday's "BRAC and Beyond" event.
The gathering even featured a recruiter from NSA, the secretive signals intelligence agency. While she said she couldn't talk about what her employer does, she did reveal that the agency hired 1,900 people in the last fiscal year to do it. NSA is on course to hire about 1,200 more in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, said Tiwanna Coleman, the recruiter.
But if that sounds like a lot, consider how many resumes the agency gets: more than 20,000 in the past two months alone, Coleman said.
The situation could become significantly more cutthroat depending on what happens to the federal budget. Unless Congress comes up with another deficit-reduction plan, federal spending will be automatically chopped starting Jan. 2 — including a 9.4 percent cut to most defense programs. But even if a deficit-reduction plan is reached, pressure is on to reduce spending nationwide.
State officials are hopeful that Fort Meade, with its cybersecurity and intelligence focus, will fare better than other installations. And after a hiring slowdown that followed the end of BRAC, base employers seem prepared to pick up the pace, said Daniel Thomas, vice president for the Washington-Baltimore territory at Kelly Services, a staffing company that does work on the base.
"We're seeing some positive trends," he said in a telephone interview.
That also was the message to the crowd Thursday night. Billie Keeler, civilian personnel officer at the Defense Information Systems Agency, or DISA, said hiring at his organization should increase.
Just don't lollygag about applying. DISA job postings get such an immediate rush of applicants — sometimes 300 to 400 for a single job — that most stay up on usajobs.gov for only five days.
"It's very, very competitive for a federal job," Keeler warned.
So Godsey has found. She said she has been told that she'll always be at a disadvantage in the race to get hired at Fort Meade because she doesn't have a military background and because she has never worked for the federal government.
But, she said, she has the experience for the job she wants — as well as a master's degree — so she's not giving up. She left the Thursday event vowing to take the bullet points out of her resume that night and to try again.
"I'm hoping that the next one that goes in gets looked at," Godsey said.