Events of the past 20 years have created a sort of "perfect storm" for the employee screening industry--notably the 1987 crash of a train driven by a marijuana-fogged engineer in Maryland, the rise of identity theft, and 9/11 and the ensuring terrorist alerts. According to Robert Capwell, founder of Pittsburgh's Comprehensive Information Services Inc. and co-chair of the board of directors of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, employee screening is now a multibillion-dollar industry. "When I started 17 years ago, there were only about 30 companies," he says. "Now there are 362 background screening companies in NAPBS, and they're telling us their businesses grew by 25 percent to 30 percent in the past year."

The industry is trending toward one-stop shopping, offering pre-employment drug and alcohol testing as well as education verification, fingerprinting, credit and driving history reports, INS verification, and background checks for criminal or terrorist activities. "Employers want to be sure people are who they say they are," says Tricia Smith, 35. She is the founder and CEO of Secure Check Inc. in Columbus, Ohio, whose sales will reach nearly $1 million in 2006. "They also want to know who their vendors are bringing in."

Smith believes there's plenty of room for growth in the field, noting that she's been hired as an expert witness in several negligent hiring cases. "There is a rise of litigation in this area," she says. "The question is, Should you have known an employee's propensity for a certain behavior before hiring them?"

Getting Started
Before you start your own employee screening business:

  • Consider the low barrier to entry. You don't need a license or a special academic degree to get into this field, according to Tricia Smith, 35-year-old founder and CEO of Secure Check Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. However, you do need a working knowledge of all the pertinent screening regulations--and these can vary among states, among industries, even among companies. Smith says a background in human resources or security can be helpful, but not necessary. She recommends joining the National Association of Professional Background Screeners. "There's a great emphasis there on sharing information," she says.
  • Be savvy in your networking. An employee screening business needs to build up and maintain trust with the kind of people who refer clients, such as human resources and security professionals. Smith recommends joining organizations for those kinds of professionals, attending their conferences, and offering workshops on safety and security in the work force. Since she has been an expert witness in several negligent hiring lawsuits, she can offer her audience real-life stories of companies that failed to take the proper precautions when hiring.
  • Make marketinga priority. Smith hired a web professional to make sure Secure Check's website was informative and easy to navigate and to load its home page with all the keywords that someone searching for her services might use. Aside from that, she relies on networking, speaking engagements and referrals to build her business. "I"ve found it hard to come up with good promotional materials or advertising for a business like this," she says. "I don't want anything that employs scare tactics."
  • Pick a specialization. As with so many other businesses, Smith reports that the best way to get into employee screening is to pick a niche. "Don't try to be all things to everyone," she says. "The field is wide open because every business can use some kind of screening. Pick one--like retail or businesses that work with the elderly or with children--and learn everything there is to know about screening for good employees there."