As industries look to increase efficiency, relying on freelancers who now account for nearly one-third of the American workforce, the defense sector stands out as lumbering monolith that has been slow to change. Defense companies, often operating with a high overhead, seek out employees with a finely tuned set of skills or security clearances and struggle to fit everything into a dwindling budget.
A Navy veteran with extensive foreign policy experience, a background in humanities and a community of 50,000 LinkedIn users would like to change that.
That veteran is Graham Plaster, and his platform is TheIntelligenceCommunity.com, which would introduce a pipeline of freelancers to the country’s military-industrial complex. Framed in the model of ODesk or Elance — the online job platforms that connect businesses and freelancers — TheIntelligenceCommunity.com would host job opportunities in the national security space that could be filled by freelance workers or independent contractors of all sorts of skill levels.
Job opportunities would break down by a unique set of layers, including filters by clearance level in the GSA schedule, the ability to verify language levels and whether work would fall into a HUBZone region.
Plaster said the opportunities will span an array of skills and levels, with job postings geared toward geo-political consulting, translation, technical writing and business intelligence.
“If you are a retired ambassador or an undersecretary, and do business development consulting for $1,000 an hour, and you are doing it from your house in Fiji, I don’t see any restriction to doing that,” Plaster said. “If you are still in college and you’re a computer science guy, and you don’t have a clearance, but you’d like to do a little bit of app development for a government agency that would like to hire you, there will be a way to do that, too.”
Unlike traditional job boards like USAJobs.gov or Indeed.com, Plaster’s site would aim to help applicants avoid the arduous hiring process tied to government work.
“Generally, you go to LinkedIn or you go to Indeed, you search for a job, you find full-time employment with a contracting company or the government, and the whole cycle to apply and try to get into that job is very competitive and long,” he said. “A lot of them require clearances and to be on site. Contrast all of that with the idea that we are building a marketplace where you’ll quickly be able to find short-term jobs that don’t require clearance, [allow you to] work from home and piece together a bunch of jobs to make ends meet.”
For the time being, the marketplace is still just a concept. Right now, Plaster is focused on initial development and getting freelancers matched up with small businesses. Plaster told FedScoop in October that the platform would be in beta for about a year, leveraging insights gained from the LinkedIn community.
Armed with a technological curiosity along with a vast contact network from his days as a United Nations liaison and a Navy foreign area officer, Plaster is trying to overcome a mindset within the defense community that is comfortable with sticking to the status quo or worried about the regulatory hurdles they would have to overcome in order to use the site.
“We will face a lot of obstacles in allowing the government to use this platform directly,” he said. “We would like to be able to offer matchmaking services for small business contract vehicles in the platform.. some sort of recommendation engine to say ‘OK, government office, you want freelancer to do “X,” here is the company that can facilitate it.’ We are not in the business of priming or [sub-contracting] any of these contracts. We’re just facilitating the link up.”
Yet even as Plaster explains this to potential partners, they still look at the platform through the lens of government contracting, which is something he would like to stay away from.
“Anybody that I talk to that is in government contracting talks in terms of ‘OK, so what contracts are you going to bid on?’ What I told people is I don’t want to get wrapped around the axle of government contracting because I see us as a tool that people use who are bidding on contracts,” he said. “If we bid on a bunch of contracts, then we are going to be taken in a bunch of random ways that have to tailor to what we are building.”
Plaster’s platform has received praise from former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn, who was responsible for overseeing a big pivot toward innovation before leaving the agency earlier this year.
“The U.S. Intelligence community should take its cues from the innovation and networking conversations occurring via TheIntelligenceCommunity.com,” Flynn has said when speaking about the site. “This forum demonstrates collaboration at its best focusing on solutions and is the virtual place to be for all intelligence professionals and all who care about our national security.”
The platform could also fill some holes in the federal workforce, which has been focused on hiring key demographics: veterans and millennials. While the federal government has launched a multitude of efforts to hire veterans, the overall veteran unemployment rate (4.5 percent) is lower than the national rate (5.8 percent). Gulf War-era II veterans — which the Bureau of Labor Statistics defines as those who served after September 2001 — retain the highest unemployment rate among veterans (5.7 percent), with females more than 2 percentage points higher (8.1 percent). Also, a report in June found that millennials only account for 7 percent of the federal workforce, the lowest figure in nearly a decade.
In order to get the platform off the ground, Plaster has shied away from debt or equity financing — “We’re trying to build relationships,” he said — and turned to crowdsourcing. When Plaster spoke to FedScoop in October, he was gearing up to launch an Indiegogo campaign that he hoped would raise $625,000 to cover the cost of building a proprietary platform. Unfortunately, that effort fell far short, with only a little more than $10,000 raised when the effort closed on Dec. 5.
Yet, instead of considering the venture a failure, Plaster started to explore other options. He came upon near-me.com, a white-label, customizable software that can build Plaster’s platform, costing no more than what was raised through crowdfunding, complete with the added bonus of launching nearly nine months faster than he initially expected.
He says the Indiegogo campaign was “an experiment like everything else,” as well as a learning experience.
“The reason why we set such a high goal is because we had no idea what the turnout would be,” Plaster said when FedScoop caught up with him in December. “We learned several things that are worth a lot to us. People are excited about the platform, but they didn’t quite understand it yet. It takes a lot more explanation of what we are going to be doing.”
It seems like some government minds are beginning to get what Plaster’s platform could do for the national security community. Despite his efforts to dodge government contracts, he did find a space to pitch his wares: His company will be part of a recently awarded contract from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which will use the platform to pull volunteer analysis into the agency’s Map of the World service.
It is awards like this that give Plaster hope he can continue to harness the power of this network and disrupt a sector that’s in dire need of innovation.
“The whole cycle to apply and try to get into [a government] job is very competitive and long,” Plaster said. “A lot of them require clearances and to be on site. Contrast all of that with the idea that we are building a marketplace where you’ll quickly be able to find short-term jobs that don’t require clearance, [allow you to] work from home and piece together a bunch of jobs to make ends meet. Maybe that’s ideal for the veteran with a retirement check coming in. Maybe it’s ideal for a stay-at-home spouse who was prior military. Maybe it’s ideal for a student that’s part-time working. If you can’t find full-time employment out there, you can piece together jobs with us.”