Federal Career Internship Program is anything but

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

When government officials, labor leaders, higher-education experts and others gathered in the Office of Personnel Management auditorium Friday to discuss how Uncle Sam recruits college graduates, they made it clear he needs help.

Laurel McFarland, executive director of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration, minced no words in her answer to the hearing's central concern: "Recent experience with our graduate students and federal hiring has led us unequivocally to declare that normal, competitive hiring is NOT an effective avenue for bringing recent college graduates into the federal service."

McFarland said the "confusing, fragmented" system leaves students behind because they lack the work experience of other applicants. "If you want to skip the next generation of federal workers and leaders, keep doing what you're doing and hire only those with significant work experience," she said.

Likewise, John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that focuses on the federal service, provided another firm point of view: "Is the current approach to federal hiring effective, particularly in the context of recent college graduates? For the most part, the answer is a resounding 'No.' "

To demonstrate Sam's ineptness when it comes to recent grads, Palguta cited figures indicating that private-sector employers convert interns to full-time, permanent employees at nearly twice the rate as the federal government.

But what should be done?

McFarland said Sam needs to "construct clear pathways for students." That includes career-oriented internships and a revitalized Presidential Management Fellowship Program that is "prestigious, competitive, fiendishly hard to get into."

She also said OPM, universities and good-government groups should create public-private partnerships "to foster an attractive, compelling student-recruitment process."

Veterans, she added, should be encouraged to use the GI Bill for graduate degrees that are good preparation for the civilian federal service. "Veterans preference," she said, "is not at odds with encouraging student hiring."

Gumecindo Salas, a vice president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, urged federal hiring managers to consider colleges serving students of color as prime recruiting grounds. Salas also said the competitive process should be "replaced or modified with a new system that looks at other factors beyond test scores and past experience or knowledge of the federal work environment."

No one argued that the current process is just fine as is. But that doesn't mean everyone agreed on what should be done. One point of disagreement concerned a government program that garnered lots of attention from speakers even though it is largely irrelevant to recruiting students. But its misleading name, the Federal Career Internship Program, was enough to earn it a starring role in the debate.

FCIP really isn't about interns, as Palguta, who supports it, acknowledged.

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