The Biden administration’s emphasis on early-career federal hiring starts in large part with interns — and they’re beginning to get a lot more attention in even the senior-most levels of government.
“You guys wouldn’t believe how often we talk about you,” Office of Personnel Management Deputy Director Rob Shriver told a group of interns at an event Tuesday. “All the time, we talk about, how can we get more interns into the federal government? How can we make sure they have a good experience? And how can we turn them into the pipeline of the future jobs in the federal government?”
The federal internship program has struggled for years, dwindling in numbers by nearly 90% in the last decade. Just a few years ago, agencies were offering far fewer paid internships through the Pathways Program. Agencies offered 60,000 paid internships in 2010, compared to just 4,000 in 2020.
It’s part of the reason the Biden administration included a more recent focus on internships and early-career recruitment in the President’s Management Agenda, as just 7% of the federal workforce is under age 30. The White House also set a goal to hire 35,000 federal interns in fiscal 2023, to try to revamp the program. But the specific number of federal interns that have so far been hired this fiscal year remains unclear.
Federal internships are a common early-career path into public service — and many interns do have largely positive, rewarding experiences that often come with a ripple effect.
“This experience has really solidified the fact that I want to work in government after my undergraduate career, and I don’t think that’s going to change,” OPM intern Katie Keim told Federal News Network at the internship event.
“I pretty much jumped right in, and I actually got to help out with doing some memo drafting — it’s been an incredible opportunity,” OPM intern Jamie Feuerman said.
And OPM is trying to make governmentwide interns’ experiences even better, with the launch of a new program this summer, offering workshops, in-person events and other resources. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have both joined interns at events to share their insights.
“The program has been a fantastic and memorable experience for federal interns to have the opportunity to learn from the federal government’s senior-most leaders about their own paths into public service and to hear their career advice,” Shriver said in an email to Federal News Network.
But to make an even stronger pipeline of early-career feds, it’ll take more work on the front-end. To add to the to-do list, the Biden administration is pushing agencies to pay all their interns.
Paid internships have existed in the federal government for decades, Shriver said. Agencies have several ways to offer paid positions, for example, through the Pathways Program, a limited streamlined authority for hiring post-secondary interns, the CyberCorps Scholarship for Service, the Workforce Recruitment Program and the Boren Scholars Program. Alternatively, agencies can also contract with third-party internship providers that offer payment.
“We have seen that unpaid internships are a barrier to hard working, talented and really creative individuals,” General Services Administration Deputy Administrator Katy Kale said at the internship experience program event this week. “We offer paid internships to help remove barriers to equal opportunity for low-income students and first-generation professionals at the beginning of their careers.”
But inconsistencies in paid internship opportunities have left some, like former federal intern Michelle Liang, with a more negative experience.
“I began my internship hungry for experience in public service, but despite what employers might believe, experience doesn’t pay the bills,” Liang, currently a partnerships fellow at advocacy group Pay Our Interns, wrote in an op-ed last month. “If the federal government wants young workers to invest in gaining experience, they need to be willing to invest in us.”
“The federal government often advertises paid internships through Pathways as a solution to achieve equitable workforce pipelines, but restricts access with terms and conditions, like requiring a graduate degree,” Liang added.
OPM, though, has been looking at ways to revamp the regulations for the decade-plus-old Pathways Program, and open the doors to more applicants. OPM plans to publish a proposed rule later this summer on that expansion plan, which will “better reflect agency needs, candidate preferences and best practices that have evolved since the regulations were first issued over 10 years ago,” Shriver said.
“What we’re looking to do is say, ‘how can we expand its reach into more community colleges, more trade schools?’” Shriver told Federal News Network in June. “Are there skills-based programs where the federal government really needs to be more competitive as well?”
But with all the red tape to paying interns, Carlos Mark Vera, founder of advocacy group Pay Our Interns, is trying to get agencies to make an even bigger push.
“Pathways can’t be the only way you get your foot in the door at an agency,” Vera told Federal News Network. “What we’ve noticed is, while Pathways is paid, there are all these other student volunteer programs — those are all unpaid, and it somewhat feels like the Wild West.”
Months of advocacy from Vera and other Pay Our Interns staff ultimately helped, in part, lead to the White House, as well as the State Department, to start offering paid internships internally. In both instances, Vera said Congress had to authorize not just funding, but also specific language, to be able to pay the interns. Now, Pay Our Interns is aiming to broaden those successes governmentwide.
“We have talked to certain agencies who tell us, ‘Look, we actually have funds to pay interns in the student volunteer programs, but we legally cannot,’” Vera said. “Some agencies will need explicit authority, whether that’s from Congress or the White House.”
Unpaid internships are a major issue of diversity as well. On average, it costs $6,000 to take a three-month internship, which disproportionately impacts Black and Latino college students, and is a massive barrier for low-income individuals, Vera said.
“Most people simply can’t afford to just uproot themselves and move to D.C. for a summer and pay high rent,” Vera said.
The Biden administration’s 2021 executive order on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility specifically aimed to “increase the availability of paid internships, fellowships and apprenticeships, and reduce the practice of hiring interns, fellows and apprentices who are unpaid,” the order stated.
And although there has been significant positive progress, for Vera, there’s still a long road ahead to create more equity in federal internships.
“The end goal is ensuring the entire federal government, the largest employer in the country, is fully accessible to working class people of all backgrounds,” Vera said. “Part of the issue is unpaid internships.”
Still, current federal interns said their experiences have been, on the whole, positive — and they had some recommendations for how agencies can improve early-career recruitment overall.
“It’s important to acknowledge that not everybody who is my age necessarily wants to do political work, and they associate the government with political work,” Feuerman said. “Just emphasizing the diversity of fields that government has — agencies are also part of the heart of government.”
“I’ve been given a lot of projects where it’s not boring grunt work. It’s genuinely work that is impacting people,” Keim said. “I think it’s so important to stress the impact that you can make in a position like this, and I think that’s something that’s crucial for recruiting people into the federal workforce.”