The White House on Monday ordered the elimination of a controversial federal internship program, replacing it with a three-track system that the administration said would allow agencies to reach the entire pool of qualified candidates for entry-level jobs.
The Federal Career Internship Program (FCIP), which had drawn the ire of federal employee unions who charged it had become an efficient way for agencies to flout competitive hiring practices, will be eliminated as of March 1, 2011. The program has grown significantly each year since it was first established in 2000 by President Clinton. According to the Office of Management and Budget, agencies made 411 new hires in 2001 under the program. In 2009, there were 26,709 new FCIP hires.
Agencies will be required to consolidate any programs they currently have for college students or recent graduates into one of three new categories, dubbed “Pathways Programs” under the president’s order.
One is intended to completely replace the various internship opportunities offered by agencies. There are numerous legal authorities that provide for the existing programs, and all of them will be merged into a single program. Only students currently enrolled in high schools, colleges, trade schools or other qualifying institutions will be eligible, and the order requires that they be referred to as interns. Agencies that use the program will be required to give participants “meaningful developmental work.”
A second track is an entirely new Recent Graduates program. Recent degree-earners would have two years from the time they successfully complete their studies to apply. An exception will be made for veterans who served in the military during that two-year window – they would have up to six years from the time they earned their degree. The program would begin with a two-year career development phase intended to familiarize new federal workers with their career path. The new hires would be grouped with a cohort of their peers who graduated at approximately the same time.
The third track is the existing two-year Presidential Management Fellowship program for candidates with advanced degrees, first begun in 1977. The order mandates an expansion of the eligibility window for candidates – both to align the application process with academic calendars, and to allow more recent graduates to apply. It also eliminates the requirement that a candidate be nominated by a higher learning institution. An administration official said the nomination process had become inconsistent and arbitrary, since each college or university was allowed to set its own standards for who was eligible for a nomination.
The administration believes that the new programs will improve the government’s ability to compete with the private sector for new talent. The president’s order states that the government benefits from a workforce that incorporates the enthusiasm and perspective of students and recent graduates.
“The existing competitive hiring process for the Federal civil service, however, is structured in a manner that, even at the entry level, favors job applicants who have significant previous work experience,” the order reads. “This structure, along with the complexity of the rules governing admission to the career civil service, creates a barrier to recruiting and hiring students and recent graduates.”
The existing program has been under review since at least May, when President Obama signed an order that instructed the Office of Personnel Management to re-evaluate it, and to “propose a framework for providing effective pathways into the Federal Government for college students and recent college graduates.”
FCIP has been vigorously criticized by federal employee unions, who contend that agencies have used it to circumvent rules mandating merit selection procedures and hiring preferences for military veterans. In November, the Merit Systems Protection Board ruled in the case of two veteran applicants who were passed over for positions with the Department of Veterans Affairs that FCIP violated the Veterans Employment Opportunities Act.
Union leaders who played a role in trying to end FCIP said Monday they were taking a wait-and-see approach to the Pathways programs, because many of the details will still have to be finalized through rulemaking by OPM. Nonetheless, they said they were pleased to see the elimination of the existing program.
“I don’t think the interns were treated all that fairly, and it certainly cut out promotional opportunity for our members,” said John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees in an interview with Federal News Radio. “It’s just good to see that the Obama administration has recognized that and is going to put up a new way of doing it and just let this program go back to being a real intern program and not an alternative abusive hiring program.”
“We think of course that the administration has made the right decision on that,” said Colleen Kelly, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “It was NTEU who filed a lawsuit to have that program terminated. And we’re pleased to see that the current FCIP hires are going to be converted to competitive service with no loss of pay or benefits or any commitment that the government made to them.” Kelly said her union would be closely watching OPM’s draft rules, in particular to see whether the replacement for FCIP would truly be used only for legitimate interns.
“It’s not clear what they intend to do,” she said in an interview. “The executive order talks about a cap, and we had urged OPM to consider putting a cap on the number of hires under the new pathways programs so that it was clear that it was a very specific intern program and should not be misused as the FCIP program was. That’s not what the executive order talks about. The cap would be on the number of those that can be converted over to the competitive service after successfully completing the internship.”
The order requires agencies to apply veterans preference criteria to and hires they make under the new programs, and to use “appropriate” merit-based procedures for any recruitment and hiring that takes place under the new rules. Within the next 45 days, each agency will also have to designate a Pathways program officer who will report to OPM on implementation of the new procedures.
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