Obama ends popular internship program, creates new pathways to federal service

President Obama issued an executive order on Monday evening scrapping a controversial federal internship program.

The order shuts down the Federal Career Intern Program -- whose popularity as a means for quickly hiring new employees has skyrocketed since it was created in 2001 -- as of March 2011.

The directive also establishes three pathways for students and recent graduates to enter the federal workplace. The programs are tailored to recruit, train and retain well-qualified candidates.

"The new streamlined, transparent, and more uniform hiring process for students and recent graduates will replace the current system that puts the government at a significant competitive disadvantage in attracting and hiring talented students and recent graduates," an administration official said on Monday. "This step is part of the president's broader commitment to modernizing the way the government hires in order to make it work better, smarter and more efficiently as we deliver vital services for the American public."

The order consolidates a host of disparate government internship programs into a single system targeted to students enrolled in a variety of educational institutions.

Meanwhile, the new Recent Graduates Program will place successful applicants into a two-year career development program in which they will learn alongside peers who were hired during the same time frame. The program targets recent graduates of trade and vocational schools, community colleges and universities.

To be eligible, applicants must apply within two years of completing their degree. Veterans who were precluded from applying because of military service obligations will have six years after completing their degree to apply.

The order also expands the eligibility for enrolling in the Presidential Management Fellows Program, a three-decades-old leadership development program for advanced- degree candidates. The program will become more "student friendly," the official said, because it will be aligned with academic calendars. The Office of Personnel Management is directed to set new qualification standards for the program and to make it more "robust and substantive for participants," the official said.

OPM is expected to issue a proposed rule in the Federal Register in the coming months implementing the order. The order is expected to be fully implemented within a year, the official said.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which has strongly opposed the Federal Career Intern Program, was taking a wait-and-see approach with the order.

"NTEU is pleased that the administration recognizes the need to eliminate the FCIP, but maintains that any efforts to reform federal hiring methods must maintain the competitive hiring process and merit principles," said union President Colleen M. Kelley. "Outside of limited internships, NTEU supports competitive hiring in the civil service for all. We see no reason why the existing competitive hiring procedures should not remain the primary hiring method for recent college graduates."

In addition to ending FCIP, the union wants the administration to convert all program hires to the competitive service without the loss of pay or benefits.

The FCIP has attracted controversy since its creation, and especially in recent years, as agencies as have used it as a primary means of circumventing the cumbersome traditional federal hiring process to bring in recent college graduates. Under FCIP, agencies can appoint individuals to two-year internships, after which they are eligible for permanent positions.

In November, the Merit Systems Protection Board ruled that FCIP violates federal veterans preference laws. The decision involved the cases of David Dean and Larry Evans, preference-eligible veterans who claimed the government's use of FCIP did not allow them to compete fairly for federal employment. Dean alleged he was unable to apply for a federal job because FCIP openings do not meet the same public notice regulations as competitive service jobs. Evans applied for one of nine vacant GS-7 positions at the Veterans Affairs Department, but all of the jobs were filled using FCIP.

In May, in connection with an effort to overhaul the federal hiring process, President Obama directed OPM to evaluate the internship program and report back on what should be done to improve it.

At the time, federal labor unions expressed disappointment that the president had not moved to end the program immediately. "While the Obama administration has committed to evaluate the use of the FCIP, there is already ample evidence that the FCIP is on the verge of replacing the competitive service," said the American Federation of Government Employees in a statement.

Kelly said on Monday that "Continuing agency misuse of the FCIP has subverted its original training and development purpose to turn it into the hiring method of choice for many agencies, since it does not require adherence to competitive recruitment and selection procedures. The current program circumvents merit principles and veteran's preference. NTEU has mounted a multi-pronged legal attack on the FCIP, in district court and before the Merit Systems Protection Board." Tom Shoop and Emily Long contributed to this report.

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