Agencies get clearer direction from OPM, OMB to expand early-career pipeline

New guidance from the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget details how agencies can expand paid internship opportunities.

Agencies may have a clearer path forward on how to bring more early-career talent to the federal workforce.

The Office of Personnel Management, in partnership with the Office of Management and Budget, released guidance on Jan. 19, detailing strategies and best practices for agencies to better hire, incentivize and retain early-career federal employees, including interns, fellows and apprentices.

“Internships and similar programs offer a way to bring in different perspectives and create a stream of talented and diverse employees with new skill sets,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja and OMB Deputy Director for Management Jason Miller said in a joint statement. “These programs also provide opportunities for non-supervisory employees to gain experience, training and mentoring new staff, as well as opportunities for students to mentor seasoned staff through reverse mentoring.”

The guidance contains a broad range of information and strategies for agencies to try to more effectively hire early-career talent, while using certain incentives to expand their candidate pools — it covers everything from outreach to onboarding, benefits, telework options, student loan repayment opportunities and more.

Agencies can also see the detailed requirements and processes for several types of early-career opportunities and flexibilities, such as the Pathways Program, and the post-secondary students hiring authority, contained in the new guidance.

Notably, the guidance emphasized the Biden administration’s goal to broaden paid internship opportunities in the federal government. At the same time, OPM said agencies should try to decrease their reliance on unpaid internship opportunities.

To accomplish that, agencies should “increase the use of student employment programs and other hiring authorities, to help open paths to employment and opportunities for all,” the guidance said.

The White House took the lead on this initiative by eliminating all unpaid internships in its own office, and simultaneously expanding paid opportunities for students and recent graduates. The Biden administration also plans to hire 35,000 interns governmentwide during fiscal 2023, after federal internship numbers dropped off in recent years.

Offering stipends, recruitment incentives and travel benefits will additionally help agencies expand early-career opportunities to a broader range of applicants, according to the guidance. Agencies should better coordinate and fund strategic federal internship, fellowship and early-career hiring programs, OPM and OMB added.

As an incentive to recruit and retain students and early-career employees, agencies can also offer student loan repayment assistance. This type of assistance may also help bring in candidates to positions that are mission-critical, or typically difficult to fill, the guidance said.

Agencies can also hire students for term appointments, which are limited-time positions in the federal government. These roles can give agencies flexibility to evaluate interns and determine their fit before hiring them into permanent positions, the guidance said.

The guidance aligns with part of the first priority of the President’s Management Agenda, strengthening and empowering the federal workforce. Part of the key management priority centers on recruitment of early-career job candidates.

Additionally, the guidance is meant to bolster the Biden administration’s executive order on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the federal workforce.

“Early career programs are a critical pathway into federal service,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said in a Jan. 19 press statement. “Whether someone is entering the workforce for the first time or changing professions, these programs offer public servants an opportunity to demonstrate their talents and potential. By increasing opportunities and removing barriers to hiring interns, fellows and apprentices, federal agencies can boost their talent pipelines and better serve the American people.”

Beyond just hiring interns, fellows and other early-career candidates, agencies should consider their investments in learning and development, along with mentoring and career advancement opportunities, to strengthen retention of early-career workers.

A push toward hiring more early-career workers to the federal government has stemmed from some members of Congress as well. For one, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) applauded OPM for issuing the new guidance for agencies. He noted that although the Pathways program had 60,000 paid interns in 2010, by 2020, participation in the program had declined to 4,000.

“We can and must do better. As we kick off 2023, we must continue our work to foster a more vibrant, diverse employee population — and find and grow the talent that will innovate us through whatever the future has in store. That’s exactly what OPM has done,” Connolly said in a statement.

Connolly also introduced legislation last Congress seeking to improve governmentwide coordination on federal internship programs.

OPM and OMB said they will continue providing tools and resources to help agencies meet the goals of the new guidance. OPM also plans to host learning events to assist human resources practitioners and agency recruiters.

“Our collaborative efforts to implement this guidance will help to reinvigorate federal early career talent programs that serve as a pipeline for diverse talent into federal jobs by investing resources in these programs, increasing public visibility of federal careers and establishing and maintaining effective partnerships with colleges and universities,” the guidance said. “Continued partnership among OPM, OMB, agencies, employees and their unions has the potential to strengthen the federal hiring process and assist agencies in employing the tools at their disposal, including as it relates to recruiting and retaining early career talent.”


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