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Federal Career Internship Program is anything but

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, June 29, 2010; B03

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.

"The FCIP is not an intern program in the way many people think of internships," he said. "For example, the FCIP is not a hiring mechanism for filling temporary jobs with students who will be returning to school at the end of their internships."

Instead, agencies use -- overuse and abuse, say critics -- the career intern program to get around some requirements of the regular competitive hiring process.

Critics and supporters agree that FCIP has grown quickly, from 411 hires in its first year, fiscal 2001, to 26,700 in fiscal 2009.

"We believe the growth is related to a very simple reason. Overall, it works well as a hiring authority," Palguta said. He added that although agencies may use FCIP to hire outside the competitive process, veterans' preference and merit system principles still apply.

Union leaders couldn't disagree more about the program.

The National Treasury Employees Union has legally challenged it and is critical of OPM for including FCIP on a Web page for students.

"The FCIP," said Barbara Atkin, NTEU's deputy general counsel, "is a perfect example of hiring gone awry."

She believes that FCIP turns the whole concept of an "internship" program on its head because some agencies use it "to hire nearly all frontline employees as 'interns.' This is not a program like the current Student Career Experience Program, which serves as a learning experience for students in college or graduate school."

"Rather, the FCIP is a hiring authority that allows agencies to hire without appropriate internal or external notice and without the same veterans' preference that would exist under a competitive appointment. It also circumvents the competitive examination process, which has been a pillar of fairness in the federal workforce."

President Obama has ordered OPM to review FCIP. Its days could be numbered. If it survives, the first thing to change is its name.

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