Agencies struggle to adjust to new Pathways internship program

Agencies are unhappy with the limitations under the new Pathways internship program. Almost two years after the Office of Personnel Management issued the program’s final rule, agency use of Pathways is underwhelming.

While part of the issue with Pathways is that agencies need to adjust to the new requirements, there are some deeper, intrinsic issues.

“The thing about the Pathways program that hurts us at this point is not that so much you have to do a vacancy announcement, but you can’t do a targeted vacancy announcement. So you can’t point your announcement at certain schools to get the kind of talent you used to get in the past. It makes it a little more cumbersome,” said Kevin Mahoney, the Commerce Department’s chief human capital officer, Tuesday at the Association of Government Accountants CFO-CIO Summit in Washington. “OPM is well aware of our concerns about the program, and I believe they are doing something to address it. However, it’s still an important program.”

He added the fact that Pathways also includes the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program is a significant benefit that agencies need to take more advantage of to bring in highly-qualified employees.

Mike Casella, the CFO at the General Services Administration, said one of the biggest problems he sees with Pathways is agencies haven’t figured out how to use the program yet.

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“We put out announcements where[ever], because the thinking is interns need only general qualifications. We’ve got a finance internship program where we had a nurse that we basically had to hire, that had literally no finance background whatsoever. And that was because — and I hope this will change — of the idea you don’t have to target this at all because it’s an entry-level position,” he said. “Any of you who have tried to hire, even GS-5s or GS-7s into a finance program or into an IT program know that’s not true. You still want someone with some combination of educational and work experience coming in.”

Changes to PMF program adds to challenges

An OPM official said by email Pathways does give agencies broad flexibility for targeted requirements.

“In the case of Pathways internship positions, agencies may develop their qualification standards to target the required skills or occupations for the positions they are seeking to fill,” the official said. “For the Recent Graduates program, agencies such as [the Defense Department] and NASA are strategically recruiting for specific skill sets that help fulfill mission critical duties. DoD recruits for mission critical career fields, such as accounting, finance and engineering.”

But it’s not just Pathways that is frustrating agencies. Casella said there also are some shortcomings around the PMF program.

“As a former [PMF] myself, I think it was a huge mistake for OPM to get rid of the interview process for the PMF program. I think that really made a difference in bringing in people who you could have some confidence who had already hit a certain bar coming in,” he said. “I went through the process. I thought it was hard. It was a little scary, but that’s the point. You want people who actually have hit that bar. Now making it just a paper process, there still are a lot of good PMFs that are coming, but I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that, my understanding is this year there were huge numbers of PMFs who were not taken by agencies. I think the lack of the interview and generally it’s not as selective of a program as it used to be.”

Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said he agreed with Casella that OPM’s decision not to continue interviews hurt the PMF program.

He said part of the reason for changing the process was budget and sequestration related. Stier added the lack of agency participation in the PMF program also was in part due to sequestration and the shutdown.

The OPM official said it’s helping agencies address the need to recruit for certain skillsets, including implementing a PMF track specific to the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) positions to help agencies better address skills shortages in these occupations.

“OPM has worked in partnership with federal agencies throughout the entire Pathways process in order to help establish the Pathways programs. In 2011, OPM established a Pathways Advisory Council to prepare agencies for a successful implementation of these new programs,” the official said. “The Pathways Advisory Council continues to meet in the form of a monthly call in order to answer inquiries and foster stronger collaboration. OPM is working with [more than] 60 federal agencies to assist with the recruitment of students and recent graduates through the Pathways programs. OPM has conducted workshops, panel discussions and participated in job fairs. All agencies with a Pathways program must designate a Pathways program officer (PPO). OPM has established an ‘office hours’ virtual meeting for Pathways program officers and Presidential Management Fellows coordinators held the fourth Wednesday of each month. Typically, approximately 30 agencies participate in the meeting.”

Surveys show growing discontentment

At these meetings, the official said agencies can ask OPM Pathways policy experts questions about various topics, as well as share strategies for Pathways implementation among each other.

“PPOs may also meet with each other at any time, and most agencies actively and frequently engage with their assigned OPM Pathways liaison for any implementation guidance they may require,” the official said.

Recent surveys show OPM has a long way to go to change the view of Pathways.

A May survey of the 62 CHCOs and other federal HR leaders by the Partnership and Grant Thornton found 47 percent said they are not using the Pathways program or using it only to a limited extent. Meanwhile, 33 percent said they are using Pathways to a moderate extent, and only 20 percent said they are using Pathways to a great or very great extent.

The comments in the survey also tell the frustrations of CHCOs about using Pathways. HR leaders who were using the program rated as poor, on average, the degree to which the Pathways programs were meeting their needs. The survey stated the most repeated criticism stemmed from one particular item — the requirement mandating that agencies accept applications from all sources, regardless of agency need or circumstance.

One CHCO said, “We are not happy with Pathways. It is simply not working. The public notice requirement is killing me.”

The regulations require agencies to post all employment opportunities on USAJOBS and accept all applications.

The problem there is the volume of applications. One CHCO told the survey more than 30,000 applications for 10 jobs were received when they were each posted for only five days.

At the same time, with all this volume, CHCOs also said they don’t have good assessment tools . One CHCO asked, “How do you deal with that, especially within the confines of merit principles?”

A Federal News Radio survey of CHCOs also found similar frustrations with Pathways, even though 93 percent of our respondents said they are implementing it. But those who chose to comment were entirely negative, calling Pathways a flawed program, poorly implemented and a huge disappointment, because the quality of candidates isn’t what it used to be.

Direct hire authority also needs help

Agencies don’t just face challenges with the Pathways program, but the entire hiring process still has its problems.

The panelists at the AGA event said they saw some improvements over the last few years, but overall areas such as direct hire authority need to be improved.

Commerce’s Mahoney said he’s most frustrated with the direct hire authority that agencies want to use, but it’s hard to get OPM to approve.

He said he just asked OPM for that authority for Commerce, but compared it to being tortured by 1,000 cuts.

“I say that having fondly worked at OPM,” Mahoney said. “Direct hire authority is a good flexibility. Its biggest problem from OPM’s perspective is that it circumvents veterans’ preference. OPM fundamentally believes competition is the best way to attract the best talent. The bar that is set for proving that there is either a shortage of talent or you’ve tried and can’t recruit and you’ve got to go some other means is a high bar. OPM is normally reluctant to grant direct hire authority. My feeling is that OPM should probably do away with direct hire authority and find something else that is workable, because this doesn’t work for most agencies. It’s a frustrating process to go through, and OPM doesn’t often grant it.”

Agencies do have direct hire authority for cybersecurity, nurses and doctors positions, but Mahoney said it’s a very limited flexibility that gets used.

Instead, Mahoney said OPM usually compromises and gives agencies Schedule A authority. Schedule A lets agencies hire people non-competitively for a limited time.

Stier said the Partnership submitted a proposal to OPM to change the standard for when to apply direct hire authority from a shortage of minimally qualified to a shortage of highly qualified workers, which would make it easier for agencies to obtain this flexibility. Mahoney said too often agencies apply for direct hire authority without making a good faith effort to fill these tough to fill jobs, and that’s part of the reason OPM rejects the request.

GSA’s Casella said the entire hiring process needs to be reviewed. He said agencies need other ways to hire good people.

“Right now you kind of have the process, which, let’s be honest, has all kinds of frustrations. Or you have things like direct hire, which, at the end of the day, even though you have to go through announcements, basically I can pick whomever I want,” he said. “There should be a lot of options between those two extremes that fit specific requirements.”

Casella and others say competition among potential candidates remains a good thing, but there are other flexibilities that could help make the hiring process run more smoothly.

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