Agencies would see broader applicant pools, more flexibility in Pathways Program under OPM proposal

Expanding eligibility to include technical education programs is just one of many changes the Office of Personnel Management wants to make to the early-career r...

In another effort to try to usher young talent into the federal workforce, the Office of Personnel Management is proposing changes to decade-old parameters for the Pathways Program.

The new proposed regulations from OPM, in part, look to expand eligibility for the recent graduates’ Pathways Program, to include individuals who may not have a college degree, but who have completed different “technical education programs.” By counting experience in the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Job Corps and the Registered Apprenticeship Program, OPM said it hopes to make the program overall more inclusive, and help agencies attract a broader, more diverse pool of early-career applicants.

The proposal comes amid a more recent push toward skills-based hiring, which makes the Pathways Program’s current regulations, dating back to 2012, limited in comparison.

“In the years since the creation of the Pathways Program, employment trends in other sectors have shifted to better recognize the value of and utilize skills-based hiring over reliance on degrees,” OPM said in the proposed regulations, published Tuesday.

The Pathways Program, designed to bring early-career individuals into federal service, is split into three distinct programs, and traditionally reserved for high school and college-level interns, recent college graduates and Presidential Management Fellows. Pathways employees take a temporary position at an agency, with the potential to later convert into a full-time position in the civil service. The Pathways hiring authorities have confused some agencies over the years, but OPM’s new regulations aim to clarify the parameters. Last year, agencies made more than 8,000 new appointments using the Pathways Program’s hiring authorities.

Expanding program eligibility is just one part of the program reforms that OPM wants to make. OPM said the overall goal of its new proposed regulations is to facilitate a better applicant experience, improve development opportunities for participants and streamline agencies’ ability to permanently hire Pathways participants.

The new regulations will “better reflect agency needs, candidate preferences and best practices that have evolved since the regulations were first issued over 10 years ago,” OPM Deputy Director Rob Shriver told Federal News Network earlier this month. Shriver shared OPM’s initial plans to revamp Pathways in June, and detailed the timeline in early August.

OPM’s proposed regulations also dovetail with broader efforts of moving the government toward more paid internships. A command for agencies to reduce their reliance on unpaid internships was outlined in the Biden administration’s 2021 executive order on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.

Unpaid internships, notably, are a barrier to a more diverse workforce, disproportionately causing Black and Latino individuals to turn down internship opportunities. Since Pathways offers paid opportunities, opening the doors to more candidates at the front end may result in a more diverse internship pool down the road.

“The proposed updates to the Pathways Programs will help inform and support agency efforts to use and promote paid internships,” OPM said.

Beyond broadening eligibility into Pathways in the first place, OPM is also proposing to broaden eligibility for conversions into full-time positions, post-Pathways. Generally, participants in the Pathways internship program are required to log 640 hours in Pathways to qualify for a full-time federal position. Under the new proposal from OPM, half of those hours could come from time spent in a Registered Apprenticeship Program or the Job Corps.

Agencies would also have more time to bring Pathways interns on board permanently under the new proposed regulations. They would have 180 days — about six months — to make the conversion to a full-time position, instead of the currently allotted 120 days. The current window is a challenge, since in some cases, background investigations and vetting processes can exceed that 120-day limit, OPM said. And when converting to a permanent position, OPM is proposing letting Pathways participants who work at one agency move to another agency as well.

The regulations will additionally change how agencies can begin using the Pathways Program. Traditionally, agencies interested in using Pathways to hire early-career talent have to create a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with OPM before getting started. Instead, OPM is proposing to replace the MOU requirement with a requirement for agencies to have their own policy in place before beginning to use Pathways.

“We think it is an appropriate modification based on 10 years of experience overseeing the Pathways Programs that will streamline administration,” OPM said.

In the proposal, OPM is also looking to clarify the role of the Presidential Management Fellows coordinator, since there are often inconsistencies in how agencies view the importance of the role. The coordinator position should focus on organizing recruitment of PMF finalists, overseeing onboarding and aligning the program with an agency’s broader workforce plans, OPM said. Under OPM’s proposal, each agency would have to have a PMF coordinator working in agency headquarters, at or above the GS-12 level.

“By bolstering the role of the PMF coordinator, OPM seeks to offer agencies a better way to share information about the PMF Program throughout agencies and standardized practices associated with the use of the program,” OPM said.

OPM has made other efforts, too, to give early-career hiring, as well as the federal internship program, a bit of a boost. For one, OPM created a one-stop shop for agencies to post federal internship openings, for applicants to find all the opportunities in a single online location. And OPM launched the federal internship experience program earlier this summer, hosting events, workshops and more to interns, to try to give them a more well-rounded experience.

Now, OPM is looking for feedback on its proposals, specifically around the job conversion process, other eligibility options for Pathways to use alternative hours, as well as whether to include non-federal programs when considering applicants’ eligibility for Pathways.

“Updating the Pathways Programs will allow the federal government to better compete with other sectors for talent and ensure the paths to public service are clear and fair,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said in a press statement Tuesday. “Whether you’re entering the workforce for the first time or changing professions, the federal government offers opportunities in every sector and every industry.”

The proposed regulations will remain open to public comment for the next 45 days.

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