Pathways Program overhaul seeks to open doors to more candidates

New updates to the Pathways Program aim to foster early-career federal talent, open the doors to more applicants and alleviate some challenges with the program.

Skills-based hiring, higher pay and eased requirements will now be major guiding lights for agencies using the Pathways Program.

The Office of Personnel Management has finalized updates to the Pathways Program, aiming to foster more early-career federal talent, open the doors to more diverse applicants, and alleviate some challenges agencies have historically had with the program.

The final rule OPM published Thursday marks the first major update to the Pathways Program since its creation 14 years ago during the Obama administration. Current OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said early-career programs like Pathways are “critical” to bringing in younger candidates who can eventually become leaders in government — especially as federal employees under age 30 comprise just 8% of the government workforce overall.

“The updates to the Pathways Programs will increase opportunities and remove barriers to hire interns, fellows, apprentices, recent students and trainees, which will help federal agencies boost their talent pipelines to serve the American people,” Ahuja said in a statement. “No matter what your interests are, the federal government offers opportunities in nearly every sector and every industry.”

At the same time, the new regulations try to make it easier for agencies to recruit and retain participants in the Pathways Programs, OPM said in the final rule, scheduled to publish to the Federal Register Friday.

The final rule, effective June 11, comes after OPM proposed regulations to update the Pathways Program in August 2023. Agencies will have until Dec. 9 to comply with the new regulations.

Easing requirements for Pathways interns

The Pathways Program includes three specific programs, designed for high school and college-level interns, recent graduates, and Presidential Management Fellows (PMFs), respectively. Through the program, early-career employees take a temporary position at an agency, with the potential to later convert into a full-time position in the career civil service.

The Pathways hiring authorities have confused some agencies over the years, but OPM’s new final rule aims to clarify the parameters and smooth the transition into the career civil service.

For instance, with the new final rule, federal interns will now see lower requirements needed for conversion into a full-time position. While previously having to complete 640 hours on the clock to qualify, interns will now be able to become a full-time fed with 480 hours of work — which in some cases, can be lowered to 320 hours with a waiver.

Additionally, with OPM’s updates, agencies will get additional time to convert interns into permanent positions — now up to 180 days rather than the previous 120 days. The goal is to make it easier for agencies to onboard candidates through the often lengthy and cumbersome federal hiring process.

Broadening the options for Pathways interns may also have an impact on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, a priority for the Biden administration since 2021. Unpaid internships disproportionately cause Black and Latino individuals to turn down job opportunities. But since the Pathways Program offers paid positions, agencies could see a broader candidate pool at the front end, and eventually reach a more diverse intern cohort.

More leeway for applicants without college degrees

The Pathways Program for recent graduates is also expanding to include those who have completed career or technical education programs, like the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Job Corps and Registered Apprenticeships — regardless of whether the candidates have college degrees.

OPM said the final rule also provides a more direct route and greater flexibility for graduates of technical programs to apply for Recent Graduate Pathways openings.

The changes in OPM’s final rule dovetail with other administrative efforts on skills-based hiring, or promoting a focus on job candidates’ actual skills over their education. It’s a priority that began during the Trump administration and has continued through the Biden administration as well.

Most recently, President Joe Biden issued an executive order telling agencies to make better use of Registered Apprenticeships in their hiring practices.

“Expanding these programs … advances the president’s commitment to a federal government that reflects the diversity of the communities we serve and enables agencies to reach a broader pool of talent — because equity and excellence go hand-in-hand,” Acting Labor Department Secretary Julie Su said in a statement.

Additionally, under OPM’s final rule, Pathways internship applicants who have completed a qualifying education program can now credit hours they spent working in that program toward the total hours required for them to become a full-time federal employee.

Higher pay now possible in Pathways conversions

To try to boost broader interest in the Pathways Program and beyond, agencies will now be able to offer higher pay rates to early-career program participants who eventually get converted into full-time positions.

Agencies can soon begin offering a starting salary up to a GS-11 rate, rather than being capped at GS-9 rates as they were previously.

The higher salary options “afford enhanced flexibility to applicants and agencies,” OPM said.

Not taking into account locality pay, the difference in base pay is $10,775, according to the 2024 General Schedule rates. Currently, GS-11, step 1 employees get paid $62,107, while a GS-9, step 1 employee earns a base salary of $51,332.

Although the door is now open for agencies to offer higher pay rates, the wage increases are not a requirement. But ultimately, the final rule will impact the operations of more than 80 federal agencies, ranging from cabinet-level departments to small independent agencies, OPM said.

Questions remain on agencies sharing candidates

One new aspect of the Pathways Program looks at where participants can land their full-time federal job at the end of the program.

With the final rule, agencies will now be able to convert participants in the Recent Graduates and PMF programs to positions at any agency. Previously, Pathways participants were confined only to a full-time position at the agency where they participated in the early-career program.

The use of this flexibility, however, is limited. Pathways participants can only move to a job with another agency in instances where the employing agency is unable to bring the Pathways participant on board.

The proposed regulations garnered evenly split feedback on whether there should be only limited circumstances in which a Pathways participant could transfer to another agency. Many commenters said Pathways participants should have the flexibility to choose which agency they work at once they’re converted. Some even said they were concerned that without offering that choice, there could be resignations, perhaps if the participants had a bad experience in the program, or if the job opening presented to them didn’t align with their career goals.

OPM ultimately decided to maintain the more limited scope for agencies to convert.

“OPM reminds readers that there are opportunities for Recent Graduates and PMFs to move into different positions within the federal government before and after their conversion deadline if they are not satisfied with their Pathways experience,” OPM said in the final rule. “For example, Recent Graduates and PMFs can request a transfer to a different agency partway through their program.”

Many commenters on OPM’s proposed regulations also expressed support for opening the doors in certain cases to move employees between agencies. But some commenters still asked how agencies would be able to share those opportunities with one another, and facilitate the process of moving Pathways graduates between agencies.

OPM responded by saying it “is currently developing tools to assist participants and agencies in this process,” and agencies will see further guidance soon on how it’ll work in practice.

What comes next for the Pathways Program?

In addition to expanding skills-based hiring opportunities and adding flexibility for interns, the final rule also clarifies the responsibilities of agencies’ PMF coordinators, and clarifies the training and development requirements for the program — both of which have been challenges for some agencies that use the Pathways Program.

Of course, the success of the final rule’s changes to Pathways will depend on agencies’ ability to implement it effectively. Some commenters on OPM’s regulations suggested conducting exit interviews or surveys with Pathways participants to ask them about their experiences, and ideally improve the program in the future.

“The final rule released by OPM today updating the Pathways Programs continues to boost opportunities for people to enter public service through nontraditional routes,” Partnership for Public Service President and CEO Max Stier said in a statement. “These updates from OPM are critically important, and we urge OPM to continue to identify ways to allow even more qualified early-career employees to convert into federal service.”

OPM said it plans to soon publish guidance, as well as an updated handbook and toolkit, for federal managers and supervisors on using Pathways. HR professionals, hiring managers and other stakeholders will also be able to attend upcoming webinars and office hours with OPM leaders. And Pathways Program officers, PMF program coordinators and chief human capital officers will have opportunities to meet with OPM to discuss progress and strategies for implementation.

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