Good government group criticizes agencies’ use of internships

Federal agencies are failing to use internship programs effectively to identify and hire full-time employees, according to a new report from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

"This is not rocket science," said Max Stier, the organization's president. "This is basic good practice and it is not happening in government. The federal government doesn't view student internships as a core pipeline for talent. It's a wasted opportunity."

Agencies ended up hiring only 6.6 percent of 2007 participants in the two largest paid federal internship programs, or 3,939 of 59,510, as full-time permanent employees, the Partnership found. A 2008 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that private-sector companies ultimately bring on about half of their interns, the study noted.

The interns who got permanent jobs with federal agencies in 2007 were participants in the Student Career Experience Program, the only program that allows agencies to noncompetitively convert student interns into career employees. SCEP requires participants to complete 640 hours of work in a field related to their academic discipline.

But the Partnership noted the conversion rate for SCEP participants was still low compared to the private sector intern retention rate. The 3,939 students who went on to become permanent federal employees represented 26.8 percent of 14,715 SCEP interns in 2007.

There is some evidence of improvement, the report noted. Only 4.5 percent of 2002 interns in the two largest paid programs went on to full-time federal jobs, 2.1 percentage points less than the 6.6 percent who did so in 2007, according to the Partnership.

But Stier said overall progress is inadequate. The Partnership's study did not examine data from unpaid internship programs, or programs set up by third parties, including those that target minority students. Stier said the hiring rates for those programs are significantly lower. In addition, he noted improvements were concentrated at the six agencies where three-quarters of 2007 SCEP participants completed their internships -- Air Force, Army, NASA, Navy, and the Agriculture and Interior departments.

Hiring more interns requires a commitment from agency leaders, said Michelle Thomas, a recruitment and retention specialist at Interior's Bureau of Land Management.

Five years ago, Thomas said, "we had people who were unhappy because they're coming on board [as interns] and expecting a position, and at graduation, they're not getting one."

Today, BLM hires 80 percent of SCEP interns. The bureau tracks the return on investment through the program to demonstrate that it is effective, Thomas said. BLM officials also have been able to turn SCEP into a diversity program.

Alitza Vega, human resources specialist at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said her agency made converting Student Career Experience Program interns a priority by including a requirement in its human capital plan that at least 20 percent of program participants be converted to full-time jobs.

Stier said Congress should demand more information about how many interns agencies are hiring, agencies should be encouraged to think of internship programs as a tool for finding excellent candidates and more internship programs should include the possibility that participants move to full-time jobs.

"They're not thinking it through, and they're not being held accountable," Stier said. "From the talent side, the federal [hiring] system looks like a horrifying obstacle course, and from the inside, people don't understand it either."

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