Government Lags in Making Interns Employees

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By Louis C. LaBrecque

May 24 — The federal government needs to ensure that more agency interns become full-time employees, particularly for in-demand occupations, analysts told Bloomberg BNA in recent interviews.

About 50 percent of private sector internships result in the person taking a full-time job versus a 7 percent rate for federal agencies, Tim McManus of the Partnership for Public Service said. McManus is vice president for education and outreach at the Washington-based nonprofit.

The low conversion rate for federal internships—the subject of an April 2009 report from the partnership—is persisting in spite of the Pathways Programs, McManus said. The programs, established through a December 2010 executive order from President Barack Obama (248 DLR AA-1, 12/28/10), were designed to help the federal government attract students and recent graduates through paid internships.

The three Pathways Programs are the Internship Program for high school, technical school, community college and college students; the Recent Graduates Program for recent graduates of these types of schools; and the President Management Fellows Program for graduate students who have recently graduated with “outstanding” records.

`Myth Busters' on Pathways Programs

The partnership and two other good-government groups—the Volcker Alliance and the Robertson Foundation for Government—recently worked with the Office of Personnel Management to develop “Pathways Myth Busters” for federal agency managers, according to Shelley Metzenbaum, a senior adviser and the founding president of the New York-based Volcker Alliance.

Metzenbaum told Bloomberg BNA that the three groups and the OPM—the federal government's central human resources agency—are still working to ensure that hiring managers at all agencies are aware of the flexibilities available to them under the Pathways Programs.

“They know about it in some places but not others,” she said.

One area where there's room for improvement is cross-agency recruitment, which is permitted under current law, said Metzenbaum, who was associate director for performance and personnel management at the White House Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2013.

Agencies that have shown themselves to be adept at hiring for certain kinds of in-demand occupational areas—such as cybersecurity or contract management—should be able to take the lead for the government, she said.

“OPM could look at the data and figure that out,” Metzenbaum said. “Then they could figure out what the best suppliers are. For example, which schools are providing the best people for cybersecurity?”

But to do that, the OPM would have to move toward more of a human resources consultant model, she said.

“OPM needs to be far less of a control organization and far more of a support structure and change agent,” Metzenbaum said.

Another area where the OPM could be helpful would be in building a “repository” of internship information, including both current and former interns, that would be accessible to agencies across the government, she said.

The repository could include contact information so that agency hiring managers could talk with the interns and people who have worked with them, Metzenbaum said. “Here are the people, here are their supervisors,” she said.

“It's legal, and it just needs to happen,” she said.

Resistance to Change Is Factor

According to McManus, part of the reason why agencies aren't using the Pathways Programs to the extent they should may be resistance to change.

The Pathways Programs replaced the Federal Career Intern Program, which was popular with many federal managers. The Merit Systems Protection Board found in a Nov. 2, 2010, ruling that implementing regulations for the FCIP violated veterans' preference under the Veterans Employment Opportunities Act (215 DLR A-8, 11/8/10).

“When something that people use is replaced, everyone romanticizes what was replaced and are a little bit stuck,” McManus told Bloomberg BNA. “Just change in general is hard. It's even more complicated with a big enterprise like government.”

At the same time, there are other factors specific to the federal government, McManus said.

“You need to provide public notice of your internship programs,” including a notice on USAJOBS, the federal government's electronic bulletin board for help-wanted ads, he said.

“The more people that know, the more applications” are received, which can overwhelm agencies, McManus added.

In addition, agencies are still uncertain about how to use the programs, McManus said.

“OPM issued regulations and guidance, but there are still questions,” he said. This is why the partnership's website prominently features the results of the “Pathways Myth Busters” project as an agency resource, McManus said.

Around the same time the OPM issued its Pathways Programs regulations (91 DLR A-3, 5/10/12), McManus added, the government began “experiencing sequestration,” the federal spending caps brought about by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

“Agencies weren't hiring, and when they did, it wasn't interns,” he said. “That created a delay in capturing the momentum” that the new programs otherwise could have generated, he said.

Experience Requirement Stymies Applicants

The nature of federal hiring also is getting in the way of expanding usage of the programs, McManus said.

“By and large, the government's hiring process requires experience” from job applicants, he said. “This is a challenge for students and interns.”

Federal managers also tend to hire people who have the same amount of experience as the person who is leaving their agency, which can be difficult for younger applicants, McManus said.

“If somebody is at the GS-12 level and they leave, the tendency is to fill at the GS-12 level,” he said, referring to one of the higher grades in the federal government's 15-grade General Schedule system for white-collar employees.

Federal hiring managers seeking to expand their agency's appeal for students and recent interns should instead consider hiring a less experienced applicant who can grow into the position, McManus said.

Agencies that are doing a good job of using the Pathways Programs include NASA and the departments of Agriculture and Interior, he said.

At Interior, McManus said, the National Park Service, a component agency, serves as a magnet for younger applicants, which has benefited the entire department.

“NASA does a good job with hiring in general,” including the agency's use of internships, he said. McManus noted that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been named the top large agency for four years in a row in the partnership's annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report (235 DLR A-7, 12/8/15).

OPM Says 65 Agencies on Board

Mark Reinhold, associate director of employee services at the OPM, told Bloomberg BNA that 65 federal agencies as of May 12 had signed memorandums of understanding with the OPM to use the Pathways Programs.

In fiscal year 2015, he added, 14,920 federal employees were hired through the programs.

Obama, through the President's Management Agenda, is highlighting the importance of modernizing how the federal government recruits and hires a “skilled and diverse workforce,” Reinhold added.

In support of this effort, he said, the OPM, along with the OMB and the Presidential Personnel Office, recently launched the Hiring Excellence initiative to help the government continue to compete for top talent.

One of the goals of the initiative is to provide information to hiring managers and human resources staff about the range of hiring authorities available to federal agencies, including the Pathways Programs, Reinhold said.

In addition, he said, the OPM is holding quarterly meetings with “pathways program officers”—officials designated by federal agencies to oversee and promote the use of the Pathways Programs. The meetings showcase best practices for using the programs, provide updates on new policies or regulations, and cover topics of interest to the officials, Reinhold said.

“OPM has outreach programs in place to educate students and recent graduates from all segments of society about the Pathways Programs and employment opportunities in the federal sector,” he said.

According to Reinhold, the OPM also has established a “Pathways Day” to provide training and networking opportunities to current program participants.

“This year, close to 300 employees hired under these programs attended the event” in Bethesda, Md., a suburb of Washington, he said.

To put the Pathways Programs numbers in perspective, the federal government has about 2.1 million non-postal employees. The partnership's recent “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” report included rankings for a total of 391 executive branch agencies and subcomponents.

The partnership's McManus told Bloomberg BNA that the OPM as part of its Hiring Excellence initiative has been conducting workshops throughout the country for federal human resources and hiring officials.

“That's what needs to happen,” McManus said. “Not just that OPM provides the information, but the conversations and how-to sessions.”

Union Says It Hasn't Heard of Any Problems

At least one source of potential criticism of the Pathways Programs—the National Treasury Employees Union, which filed an amicus brief with the MSPB as part of the 2010 effort to end the FCIP—doesn't have a problem at this time with the newer programs.

“NTEU hasn’t heard of any issues with the Pathways Programs but we will continue to monitor them,” NTEU President Tony Reardon told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail.

“It’s worth noting that the federal government hasn’t been hiring much of late due to budget cuts,” Reardon added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com