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New law urges more hiring of federal interns

President Obama signed a new law last week that aims to hire more federal interns into permanent jobs, another effort by the administration to revamp government hiring.

The Federal Internship Improvement Act, an amendment to the defense spending bill that passed Congress in mid-December, requires agencies to step up their focus on the college and graduate students who work as interns.

It encourages the Office of Personnel Management to maintain a database of interns who are looking to turn real-life experience into a full-time job in government. Agencies must appoint someone to coordinate their programs and interview outgoing interns about that experience.

Agencies also need to report to OPM every year on how many interns they had, the work they did, their backgrounds and strategies to recruit and hire them.

“It’s a management bill to try to standardize and better use what is otherwise a scattered approach to internships in the federal government,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who, with Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.), was a lead sponsor of the bill.

Connolly said the government has a “desultory” record of giving students a rich experience, “with both horror stories and success stories.”

With close to half of the baby-boomer-heavy workforce eligible to retire in the next 10 years, nurturing young talent will be crucial to replacing older workers, he said.

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service said Thursday that in fiscal 2010, 21.7 percent of interns who were eligible to be considered for civil service positions without going through the formal application process were hired. That’s a far lower rate than private-sector companies, which often hire half of their interns as permanent employees.

The Partnership has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post.

The law does not require that agencies hire a certain number of interns, only “look more at why so many of these interns who come in are not winding up in permanent jobs,” said Rob Shriver, OPM’s deputy general counsel for policy.

Shriver said the personnel agency collects information on interns as part of its database of all federal employees but doesn’t necessarily include feedback on their experience.

“We think that’s a really good practice,” he said.

The law comes as the government is gearing up to overhaul its career development programs with a faster path through the often-cumbersome federal hiring process. Three newly created or revamped programs are scheduled to launch in spring for recent graduates of trade and vocational schools and community colleges; graduate students known as Presidential Fellows; and college graduates.

The Pathways Program, announced in December 2010, will replace an internship program that had become a short circuit to federal jobs for experienced applicants, circumventing the hiring preference for veterans and other qualified candidates.

Shriver said that program will require more oversight to ensure that internships “are really being used as a supplement to the competitive hiring process, not as a substitute for it.”

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.

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