New House bill attempts to reinvigorate underperforming federal internship program

The bill, known as the Building the Next Generation of Federal Employees Act, attempts to improve the federal internship experience, ensure students get paid fo...

A top House Democrat is attempting to revitalize the federal government’s pipeline of entry-level talent, with agency internship programs largely struggling to prime the pump with recent graduates, students and others.

As he teased back in October, Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, introduced new legislation Wednesday. The 47-page bill, known as the Building the Next Generation of Federal Employees Act, or Next Gen Feds Act, attempts to improve the current federal internship program.

The bill would create a new Federal Internship and Fellowship Center inside the Office of Personnel Management, which would centrally manage and promote all government intern programs. The Chief Human Capital Officers Council provide guidance on how the new center can more effectively attract and recruit potential interns, and hire successful ones into permanent positions.

Under Connolly’s legislation, OPM and this new center would be responsible for creating a centralized online platform that all advertises all federal internship opportunities, as well as a standard application form for students and agencies.

The legislation would require that OPM and the new federal internship center set standards for these programs, including, for example, a process for agencies to conduct exit interviews with interns and fellows about their experiences working in public service. In addition, executive branch agencies would have to designate internship coordinators, who will develop plans for recruiting, training, mentoring and engaging interns in their respective organizations.

And the bill pilots a program for agencies to recruit interns and fellows from underrepresented communities.

“Individuals graduating from top schools are not attracted to federal service,” Connolly said Wednesday at a hearing on the future of federal work. “Neither are the interns who intern for the federal government. We need to change that.”

The legislation includes new language to ensure federal interns and fellows get paid for their time, a priority the current administration detailed in a June executive order on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.

And perhaps most notably, the new bill codifies elements of the existing Pathways Program. It sets a path for successful interns who complete a year of federal service to noncompetitively pursue permanent employment in government, because “conditions of good administration necessitate excepting those positions from the competitive hiring rules,” according to the legislation.

The bill notes that the “Pathways Program serves as a supplement to, and not a substitute for, the competitive hiring process” and specifies that agencies use the program “to develop talent for careers in the civil service.”

In addition, the legislation provides successful federal interns with an extra credit to pursue permanent positions in government through competitive hiring procedures, an additional measure designed to give them a boost in the traditional merit civil service.

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.

Federal HR officials in the previous administration — and more recently OPM Director Kiran Ahuja — have said they recognize challenges with the existing Pathways Program. Debate over the federal internship program has occurred over the last decade, with some arguing that giving interns a direct pathway to permanent federal employment — without having to again move through competitive hiring procedures — is an affront to merit system traditions.

Connolly shrugged off the idea at Wednesday’s hearing.

“The idea that this is somehow a violation of or circumvents in some profound way the civil service merit system of hiring is a little bit of stretch given that we’re talking about less than 1% of the entire federal workforce being interns, if we’re lucky,” Connolly said.

The National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) Association, which has endorsed the bill, said it viewed the authorities in the legislation as simply another tool to bring young talent into government jobs.

NARFE said that goal is worthy, given that 6.9% of federal employees today are under the age of 30, but nearly 30% of the workforce is eligible for retirement in the coming year or two.

“You’re looking at creating the pipeline, you might say, for encouraging people to apply, not only apply, but also get into the federal workforce,” said Ken Thomas, NARFE’s national president. “I’m not sure the criticism is deserved at all.”

Subcommittee members spent much of the hearing either questioning or praising the value of telework in the government. Others criticized the administration’s federal vaccine mandate for employees.

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said he was open to Connolly’s federal internship legislation.

“Making it easier to identify internships and scholarships across federal agencies… there’s a lot of merit to that; it makes a lot of sense,” he said. “But obviously I’d like to learn about the other provisions of the bill as we move forward.”

“I hope upon reflection and examination he might want to be an original co-sponsor of the intern bill, because I do think it’s a tool… in a much larger challenge that we face in the federal government,” Connolly said.

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