Popular internship program replaced by three-track path

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010

President Obama revamped the government's internship programs Monday, the latest effort by his administration to recruit recent college and trade-school graduates to the federal workforce.

Three new career development programs, established by executive order, offer a faster path through the cumbersome hiring process. They will replace a popular internship system that had become a short circuit to federal jobs for experienced applicants.

According to the government board that oversees hiring practices, the old system - the Federal Career Intern Program - undermined the rights of veterans to get hiring preference, and federal employee unions had criticized it for undercutting competition and targeting fewer young people than it purported to.

The new "Pathways Program," to launch within a year, is part of the Obama administration's response to the forthcoming loss to retirement of the government's significant baby-boomer contingent.

The new program will offer, for the first time, a career track in the government for recent graduates of trade and vocational schools, community colleges and other institutions that qualify. The two-year program will be open to applicants within two years of completing their degree and within six years for veterans.

The 30-year-old Presidential Management Fellows Program will change to draw a larger pool of applicants. Instead of requiring candidates to be nominated by their graduate schools, the program will accept direct applications from candidates. It will also expand to offer more mentoring and training, government officials said.

A third internship program will consolidate and expand several existing ones for college graduates.

"The existing competitive hiring process for the Federal civil service . . . is structured in a manner that, even at the entry level, favors job applicants who have significant previous work experience," Obama wrote in the order. "To compete effectively for students and recent graduates, the [government] must improve its recruiting efforts; offer clear paths to Federal internships for students from high school through post-graduate school . . . and provide meaningful training, mentoring and career-development opportunities."

The Office of Personnel Management will oversee the program, evaluating agencies' progress at recruiting young workers. To address concerns that the Federal Career program hired almost all of its interns to full-time civil service positions, the personnel agency will now set a cap on the number of interns hired to full-time civil service jobs, although the order does not specify how many.

Veterans will get the same hiring preference as they receive in the hiring system for full-time civil service jobs.

Federal employee unions praised the administration for shutting down the Federal Career program, but they faulted its replacement, saying they feared the new system could fall into the same traps.

"This kind of hiring will be an exception to the competitive system, but the lines need to be drawn very narrowly," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "We don't want to have another FCIP all over again."

Rather than let some interns go after completing the program, "We want to limit the number who are hired at the front end," Kelley said. "Why would you want to hire twice as many people as you want to convert to permanent jobs?"

Interns now in the Federal Career program will not lose their jobs when it shuts down March 1 and will be eligible for full-time positions. But as the program winds down, applicants in what can be a lengthy hiring pipeline are concerned they will fall between the cracks if they are not hired in time.

Such is the case for John Nault, a 36-year-old police officer in a small Wisconsin town. He has completed everything but his background check to become a special agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"I've crossed the biggest hurdles, the interviews and the tests," he said. "It's maddening. The latest e-mail I got said they don't know how hiring will be affected by the ruling."

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