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Students Can Now Earn up to $72,000 Annually, Federal HR Director Says

OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said the federal government is looking to overhaul internships, telling students “we need more of you and your colleagues coming into the federal government.”

Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja on Monday encouraged students at George Mason University to consider pursuing a career in the federal government as officials work to revamp hiring and internships and rebuild agency workforces.

In a conversation with Reps. Gerry Connolly and Don Beyer, D-Va., on opportunities for the “next generation” of federal workers, Ahuja said that thanks to a combination of changes to the hiring process and the need to rebuild agency payrolls, now is the perfect time to seek out a job in the federal government.

“OPM under this president and under my leadership is looking to do some major surge hiring,” Ahuja said. “This is actually the moment to come into the federal government. There’s a lot of hiring going on for a lot of good reasons, and some for challenging issues like climate change, and we’re also in a phase where we’re rebuilding a lot of these agencies.”

Connolly said it has never been more important for federal agencies to rethink how they recruit new employees and encourage young people to consider a career in public service.

“Here’s the challenge: a third of the federal workforce is currently eligible to retire, while only 8% of the federal workforce is under the age of 30,” he said. “In the private sector, that figure is 28%. We’re not attracting the young talent that we need to be attracting, and we’re facing a huge bulge in retirement that has to be replaced.”

Ahuja said her agency is working on a number of ways to improve the federal government’s recruitment efforts, particularly for young people. Recently published regulations from OPM that will make it easier for federal agencies to pay and offer jobs to their interns, including authorizing college and graduate school students to make up to a GS-11 equivalent salary while they are still in school and making it easier to move interns into permanent jobs when they have completed their studies.

“What’s really great about this is it gives a lot of different opportunities, and it moves up the potential for pay in the federal government,” Ahuja said. “You can earn up to a GS-11 as a student—that’s $72,000 per year, depending on hours, experiences and the kind of job. That’s really good money to be in school, paying for bills and circumventing loans you might already have. We’re really trying to think long and hard about how to make it easier [because] we need more of you and your colleagues coming into the federal government.”

And Connolly noted that while there needs to be continued improvement, the average time to hire a new federal worker has decreased from 98 days in the previous administration to 59 this year. Ahuja said her agency is working to find ways to continue to speed up hiring while still adhering to the merit system principles at the heart of federal personnel policy.

“It’s a mix of both, where can we start not only streamlining around internships and streamlining around hiring,” Ahuja said. “For instance, there are some very similar jobs at the IRS as there are at the Commerce Department, and we want to encourage agencies to post those positions and then use the same candidate list . . . But it’s a push and pull because there’s a strong emphasis on merit system principles and the federal government prides itself on a very equitable process.”

One student asked Ahuja and Connolly about whether pursuing a graduate degree would be a valuable way to boost one’s qualifications before trying to get a job in the federal government. Both officials argued against that line of thinking.

“I would never use [a degree] as a screen when I’m hiring, and I would discourage it in the federal workplace too,” Connolly said. “There are a lot of people who can use government as an entry level portal for employment, and then they can get an advanced degree as they think they need it in federal service, with some help [from the government]. But everyone’s different. You may not be ready to decide whether you want a graduate degree, and you’ll want to have some experience before you make that decision.”

And Ahuja noted that OPM is currently in the process of decoupling degree requirements from dozens of federal positions, an initiative that began under the Trump administration.

“Right now we’re reviewing a lot of occupations to move towards skills-based hiring and removing the college degree requirement,” she said. “If you have that degree, that’s great, but to [Connolly’s] point, we’re looking more for those appropriate skills. It’s really relevant in the tech and cyber spaces, where people are not necessarily getting degrees, they’re learning on the job.”