Agencies get another tool for recruiting and hiring student interns, OPM says

Federal agencies will soon have a new tool for recruiting and hiring student interns, thanks to a new, long-awaited policy from the Office of Personnel Management.

The regulation allows agencies to strategically recruit certain students to positions in the competitive service on a term or temporary basis.

Students pursuing a bachelor’s or graduate degree on at least a part-time basis will be eligible, OPM said in an interim final rule, which the agency will publish Tuesday.

Agencies can use this new authority to hire students to a temporary appointment of a year or a term appointment of one-to-four years. Students will work for their agency at the General Schedule 11 level or below while in school.

Students who finish their degrees and meet a series of other requirements are eligible for a permanent position at the same agency, OPM said.

Agencies have struggled in recent years to hire young, entry-level talent into the federal government. Every agency has fewer employees under the age of 30 today than they did 10 years ago, the Biden administration said recently.

While OPM’s latest regulation doesn’t address challenges with the government’s primary internship program known as Pathways, it does give agencies another authority to hire students to paid, albeit term or temporary, positions in the federal government during their academic programs.

Agencies can non-competitively convert these students to a permanent position within the same organization, as long as they’ve completed their degree programs and at least 640 hours of employment — and meet OPM’s usual qualification standards and time-in-grade requirements for the job.

Under the new intern hiring policy, agencies can use strategic outreach programs to recruit qualified students. They can forgo “normal public notice procedures” and advertise the positions on their own websites, other third-party platforms and USAJobs.gov.

Posting to USAJobs isn’t a requirement, and OPM encouraged agencies  to promote their positions in a way that provides for “diverse and qualified applicants.”

This is particularly notable for agencies.

“That doesn’t mean we do not have to advertise positions, it just means that we have flexibility in how we identify and select candidates, which expands access to federal government jobs to a wider audience,” Tracey Therit, chief human capital officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said.

VA will use the new student intern authority to support the department’s hiring surges within its health and benefits administrations, Therit said in an email to Federal News Network. The new hiring policy will also help VA make progress on the initiatives outlined in the president’s June diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility executive order, she added.

The order called on agencies reduce their reliance on unpaid internships and directed OPM and the Office of Management and Budget to publish more guidance on the topic.

“The American people deserve the best and brightest professionals working to meet their needs, and OPM’s new hiring regulation for post-secondary students is an example of how we’re delivering that workforce as we build the federal government back better than before,” said OPM Director Kiran Ahuja, who, in her first engagement with the press, described improving pathways to public service for entry-level talent as a top priority.

“This hiring authority will allow agencies to cultivate top talent, bring new perspectives and skills into the federal workforce and encourage early career individuals to make their mark in federal service,” she added.

OPM itself will use its new regulation to recruit and hire more interns, the agency said. In a blog post on the new student intern authority, Ahuja said she learned from her own experience as a congressional staffer out of college that pathways into federal service weren’t often easy to find or obtain.

“Often times, opportunities like this are locked behind financial barriers,” Ahuja said. “When the gateway to a federal career is an unpaid internship, the most likely people to make it through are the ones who can afford to work for free. The post-secondary student hiring authority is one way we’re preventing that outcome, extending the opportunity of a federal career to Americans of all walks of life, and welcoming a diversity of backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints.”

The new intern hiring regulation stems from a legislative change tucked inside the 2020 annual defense policy bill, which was designed to fix what senators and the Trump administration described as an unintended consequence of the prior year’s National Defense Authorization Act.

The 2019 NDAA gave agencies the authority to hire interns more quickly, but it capped the number of students they could hire under this authority to 15% of the number of students hired into the competitive service during the previous year.

But few students actually receive federal jobs through the competitive service today, rendering the 2019 provision virtually unusable for agencies who, perhaps, hire no interns or only a handful through the traditional process in a given year.

OPM’s new regulation instead caps the number of individuals who can use this authority to 15% of the number of all students appointed to federal service — either non-competitively through the Pathways program or competitively as a  post-secondary student hire — during the previous fiscal year.

While the new policy may help agencies attract more interns and hire them into permanent positions, recent data shows the federal government has a long way to go toward rebuilding the pipeline of entry-level talent.

Agencies offered 60,000 paid internships in 2010, compared to just 4,000 in 2020, and naturally, they’re hiring fewer interns as well. According to a 2020 budget request from the previous administration, agencies hired 35,000 interns back in 2010, compared with just 4,000 in 2018, an 89% drop.

This latest policy is the second federal hiring change OPM has proposed or finalized through regulatory procedures this summer.

OPM in June finalized a new policy that allows agencies to rehire former federal employees at a higher grade level than when they left government. The Biden administration has said the new hiring policy will help agencies staff up and refill vacancies that have been left open due to hiring freezes, retirements and budget cuts.

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