When it comes to recruiting America’s best and brightest students for federal internships, college counselors gave one resounding piece of advice to hiring managers: don’t cut class.
With in-person classes resuming across college campuses after the last two years of pandemic-mandated virtual learning, federal recruiters and internship coordinators can finally get “face time” with prospective applicants, and they should, university officials said.
“Don’t just post something on Handshake and think you’re magically going to get the best students,” said Lynn Halton, who works in the University of Michigan’s career services department. “Because the best students are running student government and doing a million things and they are really busy people.”
Despite polls showing few recent college graduates are considering federal government jobs, interest in internships remains steady and strong, according to university career services officials.
Still, the federal government has a competitive disadvantage compared to other sectors when it comes to hiring fresh graduates. Just 4% of new hires are drawn from federal programs employing current students and recent graduates. And as of March 2022, only about 7% of full-time federal workers were in their twenties, compared to 20% outside of government.
That’s where internships can come in to create a direct pipeline to employment.
Federal Times asked a number of advisers who work with students and young professionals who have an interest in federal work about what they look for in an internship and what challenges they face in the process.
Here’s what they said.
Passion for public service drives applicants
The federal system has had a hard time selling its jobs to younger applicants. That’s not a government secret.
And it’s been just as difficult to get young professionals to stay. The attrition rate for federal employees under 30 is 8.5% — double the average for those aged 30 to 59.
What federal hiring managers might be pleased to know, however, is that students are eager to serve the public and come to Washington D.C., whether or not the administration in power aligns with their beliefs.
“One of the things I’ve noticed for our students is that good, bad and ugly, any sort of churning within the world outside of our campus walls is good business for applications,” said Bryan Kempton, who works for the University of Maryland’s career services department.
Students want to have impact, regardless of the political landscape.
“Many of them feel very patriotic about the United States, and they want to be part of the process of providing for other Americans, of improving their lives,” said Brian Rowe who works in career services for American University. “I do hear that quite a bit.”
As federal agencies place greater emphasis on recruiting a younger generation of employees, workers under the age of 30 scored very high across most categories except for pay satisfaction, where they posted the lowest result, according to the Partnership for Public Service.
The talent is out there, and so is the interest, so how can agencies tap into it?
Why the federal government struggles to hire
Though agencies offer many more paid internships than they used to, Kempton said a long history of unpaid opportunities has stained the reputation of federal work.
“There’s not really a need to debate about whether internships should be paid or not. Of course, it should be paid, it should always be paid,” he said. “But the sad reality of it, honestly, is that students don’t expect it to be paid. The culture around that has existed for so long, that it’s almost like they sort of are resigned to the fact that it’s not paid.”
To combat that, agencies have rolled out new programs and have expanded paid opportunities for existing positions. In June, the Biden administration announced its White House Internship Program will be paid for the first time. And the U.S. Department of State offers a number of paid internships and tuition-assistance opportunities for its fellowship programs.
Another barrier is how slow government can be to hire new talent, and students have only limited windows in between semesters or study abroad to squeeze internships in, said Kerstin Soderlund, associate dean for student & external affairs at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies.
It takes government an average of 98 days to bring new talent on board, more than double the time in the private sector, according to the Partnership for Public Service.
“The salaries are also typically lower in government, as well, and the application process longer, so it can be a challenge to recruit students especially when the job market is as strong as it is currently,” said Barbara Hewitt, executive director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania.
Viable internships can be a critical resource for agencies to recruit entry-level talent, which is also something the government has struggled with.
“The technicalities between converting interns into those full time roles is not as easy as it should be,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, vice president of research, evaluation and modernizing government at the Partnership. “And it’s not something that agencies have done particularly well.”
What federal hiring managers need to know
As Schulman said, agencies can’t “just post and pray.”
“They’ve got to do more to be on campuses, reaching out to tell their stories of what is it [they] actually do,” she said.
Schulman and others emphasized the power of outreach to students and programming when it comes to recruiting.
In a 2016 report from OPM on Pathways, close to half of the program officers interviewed stated their agencies do not conduct recruitment or outreach activities due to the influx of applicants through USA Jobs postings.
Hiring managers also cited budget constraints as a reason for not conducting such activities.
However, attending university career fairs, hosting on-campus interviews and engaging with interested students in-person is a critical way to reach talent, Halton said.
“Getting that time at a [job fair] booth, even if it’s a virtual booth, that definitely makes all the difference,” Soderlund said.
Halton suggested hosting students at agency offices to inform them about options through career immersions, speaker panels, tours, briefings, and discussions on policy issues.
Leveraging university alumni who work in the federal sphere can also be effective in actually converting interest to applications.
“Having positive word of mouth from year to year within our actual student population goes a long way in putting together recruitment,” Kempton said. “So my suggestion to federal agencies would be to adopt a model where it’s not just HR personnel, the sort of the traditional model of recruitment, but one that is a little bit more personable, a little bit more connected to the campus.”
Alumni who can help send deadline reminders for applications, workshop and collect resumes, visit campuses to interview and answer student questions can make a process that sometimes feels antiquated or intimidating more approachable and personable.
“A lot of students have the misperception that HR and personnel department employees are gatekeepers,” Kempton said. “If an agency is really interested in diversifying their workforce or attracting more women or really getting the cream of the crop when it comes to each graduating class, then their job is not so much gatekeeping, but it is figuring out innovative ways to connect to students on campus.”
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.