Agencies giving Pathways Programs better reviews

Four years into the Pathways Program, agencies have adjusted to the new rules and are reaping more of the benefits.

A new report from the Office of Personnel Management found interns, recent college graduates and Presidential Management Fellows are staying on with the government at a higher rate. Agencies are appointing more veterans, more minorities and providing better mentoring and training opportunities to new employees.

“Overall, OPM found agencies are using the Pathways Programs to strengthen the federal workforce and doing so in accordance with the five core principles,” OPM said in a Aug. 23 report. “Public notice has provided greater transparency than predecessor programs and has afforded applicants from all segments of society the opportunity to compete for Pathways positions. Demographic data on gender, race and national origin and age indicate agencies’ recruitment efforts are providing access to diverse applicant groups. Most agencies are using the Pathways Programs to supplement, rather than replace, competitive examining.”

OPM looked at how 17 agencies ranging from the Army to the Department of Homeland Security to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation used the program. It also sent a random survey to approximately 10 percent of the employees hired under Pathways and received a response rate of 37 percent. Additionally, OPM interviewed both Pathways participants and hiring managers, and reviewed job postings by agencies.

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OPM then compared the results with data from 2010 under the former two programs.

Pathways replaced the Student Temporary Employment Program (STEP) and the Student Career Experience Program (SCEP), both established in 1994, and brought in the management fellows program.  President Barack Obama signed an executive order in December 2010 restructuring these internship and placement programs.

OPM finalized the rules for Pathways in May 2012 and they took effect in July.

So in the four years since, agencies have hired more than 35,000 college graduates under the new programs and 93 percent say they plan to remain with their agency or the government in the immediate future.

“Based on healthy retention rates and overall satisfaction with onboarding and training programs, agencies appear to be making sound investments in their Pathways Programs,” OPM stated.

This is a big change from the initial reviews of the program. Federal chief human capital officers expressed frustrations with the program two years in, particularly around the lack of flexibility they had with job announcements.

OPM has been trying to improve Pathways almost since the program started. The agency has been holding a series of workshops to explain to managers how the program works, and will release this week a Pathways guidebook and matrix, a training course for HR specialists and Pathways toolkit for managers.

“In order to recruit and retain a world-class federal workforce, agencies need to provide opportunities for potential employees to experience the rewarding careers within government, and the Pathways Programs was created to do just that,” said OPM Acting Director Beth Cobert in a release. “With more federal employees becoming eligible for retirement, Pathways Programs have become a great resource for agencies to help bolster our civil service ranks, and the report shows that retention rates among Pathways participants has been high so far.”

Cobert’s point about boosting the civil service ranks is especially true around the hiring of veterans.

OPM found 18.1 percent of all appointments under Pathways were veterans compared to 4.1 percent under the previous internship programs.

“OPM’s review of Pathways hiring case files shows, on the whole, agencies properly adjudicate veterans’ preference and uphold the rights of veterans when making referrals and selections,” the report stated. “However, OPM identified one area of potential vulnerability pertaining to the referral and selection process used in the PMF Program.”

The challenge OPM discovered is during the final hiring process for PMFs. Less than half of those who responded were using OPM’s Talent Acquisition System (TAS), as a vehicle for posting their PMF vacancies in order to determine which of the finalists are interested and available for agency-specific positions.

“The lack of a standardized referral and selection process raises concerns about adherence to veterans’ preference,” OPM stated. “To remedy this concern, OPM will soon be requiring all agency PMF vacancies be posted to OPM’s talent management system.”

Another area that turned out to be a big win was with mentoring and training. OPM reported 79 percent of the appointees under Pathways said they are happy with the training they received.

Agencies, however, were less consistent in assigning mentors to these new employees. OPM found 44 percent of those who came in under an internship had a mentor, while 68 percent recent graduates and 54 percent of the PMFs said they were assigned an adviser.

“Interview respondents had a range of responses, from describing hands-on working relationships with their mentors who ensure required training and development occur, to stating they were unaware of the mentoring requirement,” the report stated. “Based on healthy retention rates and overall satisfaction with onboarding and training programs, agencies appear to be making sound investments in their Pathways Programs. However, some agencies may want to consider developing a more structured approach to their orientation programs and providing additional training to their hiring managers. In addition, as mentoring is critical to employee development, agencies should ensure they are dedicating sufficient resources to provide mentors to Pathways participants.”

OPM said the research highlighted areas of improvement for the Pathways Programs, including:

  • Considering providing training to agency supervisors, managers, and employees to serve as effective recruiters for future vacancies.
  • Educating hiring managers about the details of the Pathways Programs to enable them to work as collaborators and subject matter experts in conjunction with HR offices and to foster a more integrative approach to hiring.
  • Developing tracking tools to aid in monitoring Pathways Programs milestones such as completion of training and development activities and conversions to the competitive service.
  • Strengthening workforce planning efforts to increase the strategic use of the Pathways Programs hiring authorities, help close competency gaps, fill mission-critical occupation positions, and facilitate succession planning efforts.