For the first time in nearly a decade, the Office of Personnel Management is proposing changes to the Pathways Program, a governmentwide internship that once boasted 60,000 opportunities, to broaden eligibility for applicants without traditional college degrees.

Pathways, which includes three internship programs for students and recent graduates to train for federal employment, would expand to applicants who may not have attended college but nonetheless picked up skills via apprenticeships or other hands-on learning, such as the Peace Corps.

“In the years since the creation of the Pathways Programs, employment trends in other sectors have shifted to better recognize the value of and utilize skills-based hiring over reliance on degrees,” according to the proposed rule.

Pathways was established via executive order in 2010 by then-President Barack Obama. Since then, the number of paid federal internships has fallen by 90%, said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who has proposed legislation to reform these programs.

The need for young employees in government, meanwhile, has only grown as the workforce has aged into retirement. It has been a priority of several administrations to ensure college graduates and early-career workers are attracted to public service to counteract attrition and bring moden skills.

“Early career programs are a critical pathway into public service,” said OPM Director Kiran Ahuja in a statement. “Updating the Pathways Programs will allow the federal government to better compete with other sectors for talent and ensure the paths to public service are clear and fair. Whether you’re entering the workforce for the first time or changing professions, the federal government offers opportunities in every sector and every industry.”

In order to be eligible for permanent federal employment through the Pathways Program, an individual must complete one of the three paths: the Internship Program, the Recent Graduates Program or the Presidential Management Fellows Program. The suggested changes to the Pathways Program will alter these paths with three goals in mind to help improve the Pathways Program and convert internships into permanent positions.

The first goal is to expand applicant eligibility for the Recent Graduates program to allow individuals without degrees, but with the necessary qualifications, to apply — a philosophy the Biden administration has been building on, called “skills-based” hiring. In lieu of a college degree, qualifications could include completion of a qualifying career or technical education through Americorps, Job Corps or registered apprenticeships. Many of these government programs already background checked these applicants, which can then assist federal agencies in then bringing them on more efficiently.

The second goal is to supply agencies with more time to convert interns into permanent employees. Agencies have 120 days to do so, but the proposed regulations lengthen that time to 180 days to allow more employment opportunities for agencies and applicants.

“Though we are extending the timeline to assist agencies and interns in securing conversion, we continue to urge agencies to move promptly to complete conversion upon the Intern’s completion of the degree or qualifying career or technical education program and program requirements,” the proposed rule says. “Lengthy delays in conversion can pose a financial hardship on the intern and lead to them seeking employment elsewhere.”

Securing eligibility

In particular, the Internship program portion of Pathways requires interns to work 640 hours to secure eligibility for a permanent job in the federal civil service.

A waiver can be filed to demote this number down to 320 hours, however the new regulations’ third and final goal is to make up to 320 hours of the required 640 applicable from time completed at the registered apprenticeship programs and Job Corps.

“The Pathways Programs are an effective tool to recruit young talent into the federal workforce and develop the next generation of public servants,” said Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su. “Expanding this program to include graduates from Job Corps and Registered Apprenticeship Programs advances the President’s commitment to a federal government that reflects the diversity of the communities we serve and enables agencies to reach a broader pool of talent – because equity and excellence go hand-in-hand.”

And for the President Management Fellows program within Pathways, OPM is also proposing agency coordinators to permit part-time schedules to accommodate individuals who are caregivers or have some kind of medical need.

These proposed regulations also help advance the Workforce Priority of the President’s Management Agenda. Biden said in his 2023 budget he expects agencies to have hired 35,000 interns this fiscal year.

“The Pathways Programs has been a very welcoming experience” said Dwane Larkin, an intern-trainee at the Railroad Retirement Board, in a statement provided by OPM. “My plan is to transition to a full-time role at the end of my program. I love my job environment, and it is extremely challenging, pushing me to be a better version of myself daily. I would advise anyone interested in federal service to apply through the Pathways Program. It’s worth the effort, and the training is priceless.”

Georgina DiNardo is an editorial fellow for Military Times and Defense News and a recent graduate of American University, specializing in journalism, psychology, and photography in Washington, D.C.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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