USDA touts success with intern program

A partnership between the Agriculture Department and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities to help interns land full-time government jobs could provide a recruitment model for other federal agencies to follow.

Since 1996 Agriculture has worked with HACU's National Internship Program to bring promising Hispanic interns into the department for mission-critical positions. Maria Goldberg, executive director of the USDA Hispanic Serving Institution Program, said Agriculture uses the Student Career Experience Program -- the only program that allows agencies to noncompetitively convert student interns into career employees -- to funnel interns into full-time federal jobs. Before the creation of SCEP in 1994, Agriculture and other departments didn't have an alternative to the complicated and lengthy federal hiring process to offer interns permanent jobs after they graduated from college.

"It's kind of like a three-step process. First you check them out, then you take them from HACU, then put them in SCEP," Goldberg said. "That way by the time you put them in SCEP, you know they're high-performing."

For other HACU interns applying for jobs through the competitive process, Goldberg said USDA provides candidates with the opportunity to do mock interviews and with help writing knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) essays so they will be better prepared to compete for federal jobs.

Those efforts have produced results. A 2004 USDA survey found that 43 percent of HACU interns in the department were working in public service, and 21 percent of them were permanent employees at USDA.

A 2007 study of the HACU National Internship Program overall found that 38 percent of participants go on to become permanent federal employees, and 15 percent go on to work for state or local governments.

"I frankly was surprised to see the high rate of retention for our program in particular," said Antonio Flores, HACU president. "It's not like they're [always] retained automatically, but the connections they make seem to influence their decision to seek a job with the government and facilitate them in getting it."

In contrast to USDA and HACU data, a new report from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service said the federal government as a whole does a poor job of retaining high-performing interns. The study found that only 6.6 percent of interns who participated in the two largest federal internship programs in 2007 went on to full-time federal employment.

Goldberg said it is part of Agriculture's strategic plan to double the number of HACU interns who become permanent employees of the department. USDA also is hiring a coordinator to track its HACU interns and analyze where they are finding federal sector jobs.

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