About 300 interns from federal agencies, nonprofit groups and congressional offices will gather this evening on Capitol Hill to hear Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and three young people working in the government extol the virtues of careers in the public sector.

The event is being sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service, which seeks to revitalize interest in federal careers. Research conducted by the group shows that many college students do not have access to information about federal jobs. When they do, they encounter an application process many describe as confusing and discouraging.

The partnership hopes that its event featuring McCain, a member of the group's board of governors, will help spread the word among students and young people about federal employment opportunities. After a discussion featuring employees from the Navy and Energy departments and the Environmental Protection Agency, recruiters from federal agencies will be available to talk with members of the audience about career options.

Internships, of course, are one of the best ways for young people to learn about how federal offices operate. Some intern programs, such as the government's Student Career Experience Program, permit agencies to offer full-time jobs to participants who prove themselves to be top-notch performers.

Last year, the Student Career Experience Program had 15,756 participants, and 19 percent of them were converted to permanent civil service jobs, according to data collected by the partnership.

That's a higher conversion rate than in previous years -- in 1995, for example, 13 percent were converted to full-time federal jobs -- and seems to indicate that agencies are beginning to do more to steer young people into federal careers.

"Agencies are starting to recognize that these student interns are a great source of talent. . . . They can basically skim the cream from that talent pool by using the conversion authority and making job offers to the best students," said John Palguta, a vice president at the partnership.

Still, the government appears to lag behind the private sector in converting interns into employees. Palguta said studies by the National Association of Colleges and Employers show that 45 percent of interns land a job at the company where they interned.

To make it easier to hire students, the Office of Personnel Management is looking at how to revamp the federal Student Career Experience Program.

In a recent interview, Ronald P. Sanders, an OPM associate director, said the goal is to update the program and take into account other "rigorous work-study programs in federal agencies," such as the internships sponsored by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

Currently, interns in the Student Career Experience Program must work 640 hours, or about 16 weeks, before they are eligible for conversion to a full-time federal job. OPM's proposal would permit interns in certain non-federal programs to count up to 320 hours toward their 640-hour requirement. In numerous agencies, interns sponsored by non-federal programs work side by side with interns in the Student Career Experience Program.

The proposal also would give 320 hours of credit to people on military, reserve or National Guard duty if their job training related to comparable civil service work.

Sanders said OPM also is considering proposing a "fast-track option" that would waive up to 320 hours for students in work-study programs who have a grade point average of 3.5 or higher "and demonstrate outstanding performance on the job."

In the partnership's view, Palguta said, "the use of paid student internships [is] a great source of talent" because agencies can evaluate interns during their on-the-job training. OPM's plans and the apparent upward tick in federal hiring of interns are "all movement in the right direction," he said.

Fixing Federal Hiring

Because of scheduling conflicts, OPM has changed the date for its next forum to help agencies streamline their hiring practices. The meeting will be held Aug. 3, the agency said yesterday.

Diary Live

Christopher Jahn, president of the Contract Services Association of America, will take questions and comments on "competitive sourcing" at noon tomorrow on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com