OPM puts out welcome sign for young feds

Rule change makes it easier for student interns to become federal employees

The Office of Personnel Management and Congress want to rejuvenate the federal workforce by letting agencies more easily hire some student interns. OPM issued a final regulation April 11 that significantly changes the Student Career Experience Program (SCEP).

The new rule lets students count their internship work and military service toward the program’s minimum requirements for becoming eligible for a noncompetitive full-time government job. The ruling will take effect May 11.

“These proposed changes allow federal agencies to take advantage of relevant, job-related experience acquired in public service work-study programs that are as rigorous as programs they may themselves offer,” said OPM Deputy Director Dan Blair in a statement about the rule changes. “Agencies will benefit significantly because they will have prior knowledge of the students’ abilities before a job offer is extended.”

OPM hopes that the rule changes will enable successful interns and military personnel — such as those who had good agency recommendations, an honorable discharge from military service or an overall grade-point average of at least 3.5 — to get on a fast track for government positions.

According to the revised rule, students can count as much as 320 hours of comparable nonfederal work toward the required 640 hours — nearly 16 weeks — of SCEP work. Hiring younger employees is a major concern of federal agencies as thousands of baby boomers prepare to retire.

The rule “shows that OPM has moved the ball in the right direction,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service. He added that 15,720 students worked as SCEP interns in 2003, and they form an excellent and diverse talent pool.

The government sends dozens of SCEP internship notices to colleges and universities. “We get between 50 to 100 postings in a year,” said Mark Kenyon, assistant director of experiential learning at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Kenyon said that although some students work through the university’s Career Center to find SCEP postings, many find them on federal agency Web sites. Interest in the program has allowed some Maryland students to successfully enter government positions.

“I’ve seen students [hired] at EPA, IRS, DOT, DOD, the U.S. Courts,” Kenyon said. “We have one student who’s doing a SCEP at NSA right now. Another student worked in a SCEP with OPM who was able to transfer into a human resources position.”

One reason for SCEP’s success at Maryland is its proximity to Washington, D.C. But hiring statistics indicate that students at other schools are less receptive, OPM officials said.

Despite fairly widespread advertising and a substantial number of interns, SCEP has netted an average of only about 5,000 student hires annually since 2001, according to OPM data.

Some lawmakers want to offer more incentives to attract new federal workers — perhaps by reducing outstanding college loans. On March 30, the House passed the College Access and Opportunity Act of 2006, which included an amendment that would subtract as much as $5,000 in student loan debt for graduates who have worked for the government for five consecutive years.

Authored by Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.), the amendment would authorize the creation of a pool of funding managed by the Education Department.

The government now repays as much as $60,000 in student loan debt, divided into six yearly payments of $10,000. Those payments come out of agency budgets.

Student loan initiatives and student career internships have not had a significant impact on new job hires, according to OPM data. One reason is lower salaries compared with similar jobs in private industry, said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.).

“We likely will never be able to compete on a dollar-for-dollar basis, but we do have to take steps to make government service a viable option for talented, well-educated people with a strong desire to work in public service,” said Davis, who supported the student loan amendment.

In commenting on the new OPM rule, some students said it was unfair because students working under a different internship program, the Student Temporary Employment Program, are ineligible for the same opportunities. STEP is for students whose government work doesn’t directly relate to their academic or career goals.

OPM said it lacked the authority to enact changes in the STEP program, but added that other federal agencies could convert a STEP appointment into a SCEP one.


Quick tips for becoming a fed

Starting May 1, college and university students will find it easier to get a government job because of a new regulation that will affect the Student Career Experience Program (SCEP). Here is a quick guide to the meaning of the new rule for prospective federal workers who prefer a short path to public service.

1. Look for SCEP jobs that relate to your field of study. Information about SCEP internships and jobs is often available at university career centers. Requirements vary by agency.

2. Earn a grade-point average of 3.5 or better and have military or ROTC service or other related experience, such as an industry internship. All those experiences will help you meet the new federal hiring requirement.

3. Work hard. Agency supervisors will give you credit for hard work. Impressing them is important.

4. Expect that your full-time position could be at any federal agency that has a position related to your academic training or work-study program.

— Wade-Hahn Chan


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