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By Steve Kelman

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Are internships the secret weapon for hiring young talent into government?

Shutterstock image: urban workforce.

In the job world outside government, one of the most common ways organizations find good people to work for them is to first hire them as interns while they are still in school.

This makes eminent sense for both employers and job candidates. Job candidates can get a real-life feeling for whether they like an employer. The employer gets information about how good the potential employee is that is far more valuable than that available from paper applications or interviews. Indeed, for a number of occupations -- such as lawyers or finance industry professionals -- employers view internships as providing such valuable information about a job candidate’s quality that it is almost impossible to land a job without first having been hired for an internship.

In the federal government, however, the value of internships has not traditionally been recognized. Interns who wanted a federal job just joined the queue with all other applicants -- wading into the often-nightmarish (especially for young people) federal hiring process.

Thankfully, though, this is no longer true. The government’s Pathways Programs now provide extremely flexible and simplified hiring rules for agencies hiring students who have worked 640 internship hours -- 320 for students with excellent grades -- before graduation. (Note that for students with good grades, this time requirement can be met by just one summer as a full-time intern.)

Unfortunately, there has been confusion among many federal agencies and managers about just what the Pathways Programs offer. So the Volcker Alliance, the Partnership for Public Service and the Robertson Foundation for Government have collaborated on a myth busters document on the Pathways Programs. (Full disclosure: My wife, Shelley Metzenbaum, is president of the Volcker Alliance.) This document deserves wide circulation in the government and in university career services offices.

The most important message in the report, directed at all those confused agencies and managers, is that interns with the requisite number of work hours may be directly hired into government, without any additional posting of the job. Goodbye federal hiring-process nightmares!

This is an amazing opportunity for federal agencies and for students. Any agency in its right mind should be jumping on the opportunity. 

There is also confusion about the initial process of hiring interns, which the report clarifies. Agencies do not need to post individual internship positions, only their intention to hire interns in general (including descriptions of job responsibilities). Veteran preferences do apply in initial intern hiring, but once one has done the requisite internship, veteran status is not applied again in converting the internship to a federal job. Furthermore, agencies are allowed to do targeted recruiting for internships, at multi-university job fairs or even at individual universities, although information about such recruitment efforts must be posted.

And there is a second important feature of the Pathways Programs that is not about internships, but that also simplifies the process of hiring recent grads. Agencies may limit their job recruitment for certain kinds of positions -- say cybersecurity or IT programming -- to recent graduates, so grads don’t need to compete with older employees whose work experience may make them look better using the government’s formal criteria but in reality don’t have the latest skills. The same provisions about targeted recruitment that apply to recruiting for internship programs apply for the Recent Graduate program.

Federal agencies -- and all universities (public administration programs often worry about how complicated it is for their grads to find federal jobs) -- take note! 

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 04, 2014 at 8:28 AM

Reader comments

Wed, Nov 5, 2014

Yes, get them started early to stay in the GOV their entire career and never know anything about the efficiencies and technical expertise found in the private sector. From my experience the people who spent their entire career in Government understand the need for technical expertise the least as well as being the most willing to throw Taxpayers money on inefficient, if not worthless, activities/projects/equipment. On top of that most GOV jobs/experience translate poorly into the private sector. Other than for the military, having young people fresh out of school go into government appears to me to be a waste of their potential. They may make it far by staying in Government, but are usually a bad investment for the taxpayers because of the counter-productive attitudes they tend to develop by working all their career in a non-profit organization that usually has little sense of responsibility for their actions (especially spending) and where common sense is not highly valued.

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