Now back from space, three NASA astronauts have a new mission: to help recruit the next generation of federal employees.
A group of current federal interns across government heard from NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, as well as Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, at a launch event for a new federal internship experience program. The program, a collaboration between the Office of Personnel Management and Department of Interior, will offer the short-term feds more professional development opportunities throughout the summer.
The members of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5, who recently returned from a mission to the International Space Station, told the interns about their journey, everything from the projects they took on — growing plants like fresh tomatoes in space, to what they did in their free time — where one astronaut alone can sequentially pitch, hit and then catch the same baseball, to the food they ate aboard the ISS (and no, they did not eat Smithsonian Museum-style freeze-dried ice cream, but they were able to drink hot coffee from an astronaut-designed zero-gravity capillary cup).
But most of all, the astronauts encouraged the federal interns to open themselves to new experiences and go after opportunities as much as they can.
“There’s never a good time to become an astronaut — there’s never a good time for that,” Mann told the audience of interns at the event. “But when you make that decision, the first step is to apply. Because if you never do, if you count yourself out, if you’re nervous about failing or not getting that job, well, you’re definitely not going to get it. Step one, fill out the application.”
Before landing a full-time career in government, many do start sooner with a federal internship. Cassada, for one, was an intern for NASA, eventually working his way up to becoming an astronaut, Navy captain, physicist and test pilot.
“My one piece of advice is just be curious,” Cassada said. “If you think you know what you want to do, go ahead and look into it, but also look into other things, too. Go find that thing that you’re really passionate about, and then do that, and then maybe do some other things, too.”
Currently, only 7% of the federal workforce is under age 30. OPM and Interior’s new internship experience program is one piece of a much larger puzzle trying to improve recruitment of younger federal employees. The effort comes after years of underperformance in the government’s internship program.
The Biden administration, in an effort to revive the program, plans to hire 35,000 federal interns, and has encouraged agencies to offer more paid opportunities. In January, the administration gave agencies guidance on best practices to better hire, incentivize and retain early-career federal employees, including interns, fellows and apprentices. It’s also a focus included in the first priority of the President’s Management Agenda.
“Honestly, you would not believe how much we talk about you at all levels of government,” OPM Deputy Director Rob Shriver told interns at the launch event. “At the senior-most levels that I’m involved in, we talk about interns all the time.”
As part of the new experience program, OPM and DOI will host events for governmentwide interns throughout the summer, including memo writing workshops, training sessions and mentoring sessions. To create the internship experience program, OPM and DOI took feedback from several agencies with interns in the past few years.
“We also work regularly with the agencies, the Chief Human Capital Officers Council — through all kinds of different levels,” Shriver told Federal News Network at the event. “We’re going to the agencies and saying, ‘we need to do a better job with early-career talent and interns.’”
Early-career recruitment has remained a strong focus for OPM over the last several years. OPM, for instance, has recently finalized regulations on hiring authorities for college graduates and post-secondary students, which aim to make it easier for agencies to hire employees at the start of their careers. The agency is also taking steps to broaden the Pathways and President Management Fellows programs to open the doors to more applicants. Right now, the Pathways Program is focused mainly on recruiting four-year college graduates.
“What we’re looking to do is say, ‘how can we expand its reach into more community colleges, more trade schools?’” Shriver said. “Are there skills-based programs where the federal government really needs to be more competitive as well?”
OPM is also encouraging agencies to take on more interns each summer, and offering this new experience program is one way OPM is trying to help that goal along.
But in reality, recruiting more interns and early-career talent has proved challenging.
“Just because we think that agencies should hire interns, that doesn’t mean that it automatically happens,” Shriver told the interns. “We try to help them understand why it’s really important to have that pipeline of talent that starts with interns.”
OPM is also trying to pivot its strategy to align with the way many employees now spend their careers, often jumping between multiple jobs, rather than staying at a single organization for decades.
“We’re no longer saying, come here and stay 35 years. That’s not what federal employment is anymore,” Shriver told Federal News Network. “What we’re trying to do is to make that in-and-out easier and really evolve … Maybe it’s your first job, maybe we train you up, you have a good experience and you go off the private sector and do great things.”
Regardless of whether federal interns come work for the government right away, come later in their career, leave in between or don’t work for the government at all, Shriver said the most important thing is to offer a strong internship experience for that first summer.
“The people who come and work for the federal government are our best messengers.” Shriver said. “If we give them a good experience, they go tell their friends, they tell their family they had a good experience. And then they get into their career and maybe do a tour of duty in the federal government.”
Of course, not every federal intern will become an astronaut at NASA, but Mann, the first indigenous woman from NASA to go to space, left interns at the event with a bigger takeaway.
“As a child, I didn’t realize that I could be an astronaut,” Mann told Federal News Network. “Communicating that journey to the younger generation, hopefully they can identify with a physicist from Minnesota, or a Japanese astronaut who had these aspirations when Japan didn’t even have a space program. Sharing that journey with people will hopefully inspire the young generation — it’s an important part of our job.”