SSA puts federal career interns to work

“Building a High-Quality Workforce: The Federal Career Intern Program"

Anticipating a spike in the number of retiring federal employees, the Social Security Administration’s Systems Office has hired 230 entry-level employees since 2004. About 75 of those new hires are information technology specialists brought in as federal interns through the Federal Career Intern Program.

The intern program has helped SSA meet its hiring challenges, said Jeannette Harmon, executive officer of SSA’s Systems Office, which has a staff of about 3,250. “It has worked very well.” Lawrence Mittenberger said it took him only three months to get a full-time job offer after working as an intern in the Systems Office. “The greatest thing has been the networking opportunities,” he said. Mittenberger graduated from Bowie State University in December 2004 and started work as an analyst in August 2005.

About 95 percent of the 75 federal career interns hired since 2004 as programmers and analysts still work at SSA’s Systems Office.

The conversion rate to permanent placement for the intern program has increased governmentwide since 2001, said Mike Mahoney, manager of the staffing group at the Office of Personnel Management’s Center for Talent and Capacity Policy.

In fiscal 2001, agencies employed about 400 federal career interns. In fiscal 2004, that number grew to about 7,000. It increased again in fiscal 2005 to slightly more than 10,000, Mahoney said. SSA, the Army and the Homeland Security Department are the program’s top participants. From 2001 to 2004, SSA led other agencies by hiring 31 percent of the career interns employed during that period.

Harmon said she advertises the intern program at job fairs, at colleges and universities, online and in periodicals. Because the program has fewer eligibility requirements than, say, the Presidential Management Fellows Program, agencies can hire interns fairly quickly, she said. OPM oversees the career intern program, but agencies administer and run the program themselves. President Clinton established the Federal Career Intern Program by executive order in 2000.

Interns come onboard for at least a two-year training period at the General Schedule 5, 7 and 9 levels, or the equivalent. As a result, the program draws from a young applicant pool and attracts few midlevel applicants.

Despite the program’s hiring successes, some policy-makers are critical of how agencies have administered the program. The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) published a report in September 2005 on the Federal Career Intern Program that criticized agencies for failing to work closely with interns while they are probationary employees.

“We’re concerned that oftentimes the agency managers and interns themselves don’t realize [interns] are in a trial period,” said John Crum, deputy director of MSPB’s Office of Policy and Evaluation, which published the report.

The report also cites concerns about agencies’ use of weak prehiring assessment tools and lack of comprehensive recruiting strategies. “Agencies may keep going back to the same sources — for instance, the same colleges — year after year and do this in a way that may be exclusionary,” Crum said.

MSPB officials, however, said the intern program has great potential. “This is a new type of program, and it needs to be systematically evaluated by agencies,” Crum said. “If done correctly, it provides a better way to evaluate candidates and a better way to bring them in.”

Hiring managers generally like the program and the interns. “It is helping us in terms of our succession planning — grooming and training young employees,” Harmon said. “They’re refreshing.”

Lisagor is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

Intern program reaches record numbers

The Federal Career Intern Program, which President Clinton initiated by executive order in 2000, had about 10,000 participants in fiscal 2005. Here are some additional statistics about the program.

  • Average age of interns — 30.

  • Percentage of men — 53.

  • Percentage of women — 47.

  • Percentage without prior civil-service experience — 80.

  • Percentage with bachelor degrees — 61.

  • Number of agencies using the program in fiscal 2001 — 11.

  • Number of agencies using the program in fiscal 2004 — 29.

  • Agency that hired the most interns during that period — Social Security Administration.

  • Agency that hired interns most quickly — SSA.

Source: Merit Systems Protection Board

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