Memo clarifies status of federal interns during program overhaul

By Emily Long

January 6, 2011

Federal agencies can continue to use most existing methods for hiring students and recent graduates as the Office of Personnel Management finalizes details of the government's new Pathways Program.

In a memorandum sent on Wednesday to agency chief human capital officers, OPM Director John Berry provided initial guidance to help agencies shift from the Federal Career Intern Program to a new hiring process.

President Obama on Dec. 27, 2010, issued an executive order scrapping the controversial internship program, effective March 1. The directive also establishes three pathways for students and recent graduates to enter the federal workplace.

The president's order consolidates a number of disparate government internship programs into a single system targeted to students enrolled in a variety of educational institutions and expands eligibility for participating in the Presidential Management Fellows Program, a three-decades-old leadership development program for advanced-degree candidates. In addition, the newly formed Recent Graduates Program will place successful applicants in a two-year career development track. Candidates must apply within two years of graduation, though veterans will have six years after completing their degree to enter.

According to Berry's memo, agencies can continue to hire employees under the PMF program, the Student Career Experience Program and the Student Temporary Employment Program until additional regulations are finalized, while all activities under FCIP will end March 1.

Agencies are unlikely to change hiring practices under the PMF, SCEP and STEP options before the new programs are finalized, said Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. But few are going to engage in bringing new workers in under FCIP during the next two months, he added.

The memo also outlined how agencies should convert FCIP participants to competitive service. Those with less than one year in FCIP must complete their one-year probationary period, though time served under FCIP will count toward that requirement. Those with at least one year in FCIP and other eligible government service will not be required to serve an additional probationary period.

"What you don't want to do is have someone who entered FCIP nine months ago start back at square one," said McManus. "Agencies have the remaining months of January and February to figure out whether FCIP participants have performed their duties and should they be converted."

Union officials agree the repeal of FCIP was a positive step, but said further guidance from OPM is necessary.

The American Federation of Government Employees "remains pleased with the end of the FCIP and we are cautiously optimistic about the transition of FCIP appointees to competitive service positions and the establishment of the new Pathways Program," said AFGE Assistant General Counsel Andres Grajales. "AFGE previously asked President Obama for a one-year probationary period so we are also pleased with what appears to be the retroactive nature of the one-year probationary period created by OPM's guidance memorandum."

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, expressed concern that the memo does not address how FCIP hires are to be converted to career status without loss of pay or benefits.

"NTEU sought such a resolution for FCIP hires, and we will look for these key details to be addressed in forthcoming OPM guidance or regulations," she said. "While we are grateful this step has now been taken, we remain cautious about the parameters and operation of the new programs contained in the executive order."

Agencies by Feb. 10 must name a Pathways Program officer to oversee the new initiatives and coordinate with OPM. In the coming months, OPM will issue regulations for implementing the executive order. Officials expect the transition to be complete within one year.

By Emily Long

January 6, 2011