OPM, Connolly eyeing improvements to federal internship program

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, said he's working on two new pieces of legislation that...

No, the federal hiring process still isn’t perfect, and agency internship programs could use some work.

But the Office of Personnel Management and a few members of Congress brought a familiar message to a group of college students on Monday: Uncle Sam wants you.

After all, less than 8% of the federal workforce is under the age of 30, and many agencies have some serious hiring needs.

“The Office of Personnel Management, under this president’s leadership and my leadership, is really working on doing some major surge hiring,” Director Kiran Ahuja told a group of students Monday at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “This is actually the moment to come into the federal government. There is a lot of hiring going on for a lot of good reasons for some very challenging issues like climate change, but we’re also in the phase of rebuilding a lot of these agencies.”

Monday’s event, which also featured Reps. Don Beyer and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), was billed as a discussion on “opportunities for the next generation of public servants.”

“We absolutely need to focus on early-career talent,” Ahuja said. “We are facing a significant retirement wave. I think they’re all hanging around because of the pandemic and they get to work from home, so that’s good for us in that case. But I do think folks are thinking about retirement. Certainly we want to not only treasure that institutional knowledge but also make sure that we are passing along everything that they’ve gained in their roles.”

The number of federal employees under the age of 30 has decreased inside every agency for the last 10 years, the Biden administration has said, and over14% of the federal workforce is over the age of 60.

“We’re going to have to recruit hundreds of thousands of federal workers in the next several years,” said Connolly, who serves as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations. “We have to broaden our ability, and I think that means more flexibility, both in hiring practices and in workplace rules.”

OPM recently put the finishing touches on a new policy that allows agencies to strategically recruit certain students to positions in the competitive service on a term or temporary basis. It finalized another policy that allows agencies to rehire former federal employees at a higher grade level than when they left government.

Improving Pathways, the existing collection of federal programs for student interns and recent graduates, is also “on our list,” Ahuja said.

Data shows the government as a whole is offering far fewer paid internships through the Pathways Program today than it was a decade ago. Agencies offered 60,000 paid internships in 2010, compared to just 4,000 in 2020, according to the Biden administration’s most recent budget request.

Naturally, the federal government is hiring fewer interns into full-time positions. Agencies hired 35,000 interns back in 2010, compared with just 4,000 in 2018, an 89% drop, according to the Trump administration’s 2020 budget request.

“We have failed utterly at constructing an internship opportunity that serves for recruitment,” Connolly said of the Pathways Program. “We can’t afford that any longer. We have to use internships in a much more robust way to fill our recruitment needs, and that gives us an opportunity to make it creative, to make it exciting and to make sure that it’s structured in a way that it’s a fulfilling experience for those who decide to intern.”

Connolly said he’s working on legislation that would streamline and improve the federal internship program, and he’s working with OPM on the details.

Potential legislation would create a centralized platform where students could find specific internship opportunities, and it would ensure agencies are using best practices to manage their interns, such as finding them mentors and conducting exit interviews.

Ahuja said OPM is also thinking about ways the administration can streamline and standardize the federal internship experience and invest more tangible resources into agency programs.

Some agencies have invested a lot of time and resources into their internship programs, but others haven’t, she said.

“We need to find that balance of both ensuring that we have a competitive process, but we’re really making it easier for the early career talent that we’ve talked to today …  to come into the federal government [and] making it a lot easier for agencies to be able to utilize those programs,” Ahuja told Federal News Network after Monday’s event. “I don’t have a specific timeline, but I will tell you it is on our priority list over the next few months to work on that.”

The federal hiring process still takes too long, Ahuja acknowledged. But those who stick it out will likely find an opportunity to be real advocates in government, she said.

“Our appeal to you all today and what I think we will be doing for months to come … is that the federal government actually is a great place and a very cool place to work,” said Ahuja, who also touted the government’s health insurance, retirement benefits and still-relatively new paid parental leave program.

“We’re really trying to position the federal government going forward as a model employer,” she added. “It’s not only what we’ve done well and how we think about the entire individual, it’s about how we need to be setting trends in the employment sector around really good workplace policies.”

It’s also why federal agencies are embracing remote work options, said Ahuja, who admitted she had been a bit of a telework skeptic until the experience of the pandemic changed her thinking.

“My plan and my view, of course in partnership with all of you on the Hill and also across the agencies, is to really lean into telework,” she said. “There are actually right now some limitations in the law that we’ll need to work through to make it more expansive.”

Connolly was the original author of the Telework Enhancement Act, which Congress passed into law back in 2010 as an initial push to establish agency telework programs. That bill was a start, Connolly said, but it didn’t set metrics and specific goals for agency telework programs.

He’s drafting another bill that would set those metrics, and he’s interested in exploring the lessons agencies have learned during the pandemic.

“If you don’t set metrics it’s all aspirational,” Connolly told Federal News Network. “Yeah, yeah, telework’s good. No, no, it’s a tool for getting the job done.”

David Thornton contributed reporting to this story. 

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