In 2010, the federal government offered approximately 60,000 paid internships to students interested in gaining experience in federal service.

But in the 10 years since then, the number of paid internships in the federal government has fallen to just 4,000, according to the White House’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget, a drop of over 90%.

U.S. Code establishes an internship in the executive branch as a “volunteer service program” that must be uncompensated, except in instances governed by certain executive orders or where a third party outside of government establishes a paid program under an agreement with that agency.

A bill introduced by Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., Dec. 1 would strip that code of all language mandating voluntary and uncompensated service, while specifically providing agencies with the authority to provide “reimbursement for travel and subsistence expenses.”

“The bill seeks to ensure that all federal internships are paid. These provisions ensure that internship are not only available to interns whose parents can afford for them to live and work near or with federal agencies without pay, but more importantly paying interns ensures that they have protections against workplace discrimination and harassment,” Connolly said at a Dec. 1 hearing on the future of federal work.

“Amazingly, unpaid interns have to pay to work, and receive no workplace protections against such discrimination. This bill will vest them with those protections.”

For those that do currently participate in federal internship programs, the conversion to permanent positions after the internship is over remains in the single digits.

“Individuals graduating from top schools are not attracted to federal service. Neither are the interns who intern in federal service. We need to change that,” Connolly said.

The bill, titled the Building the Next Generation of Federal Employees Act, would grant federal agencies the authority to appoint participants in federal internship programs to a position leading to a career or career conditional classification, bypassing circumstances where a federal intern would have to wait months after graduation while going through the traditional federal hiring process to finally get a full-time job.

Under existing authorities, OPM has already introduced a rule that would allow for agencies to appoint students working on a bachelors or graduate degree to a competitive position on a temporary basis, essentially going around the “voluntary” requirements established for an intern under U.S. Code. Participants would then be eligible to be offered a career conversion at the end of the internship.

In order to make it easier for those interested to find a federal internship in the first place, the bill would create a Federal Internship and Fellowship Center in the Office of Personnel Management, which would manage a website that serves as a single portal for searching internship opportunities across the government. U.S. Code currently requires OPM to provide links to the agency sites where information on internship opportunities and the agency’s internship coordinator is listed, but the new law would put OPM in charge of a system that more closely resembles the USAjobs site, in that applicants can create profiles, set up personalized searches, upload qualifications and fill out standardized forms for a variety of internship opportunities.

The bill also takes several existing federal programs that were established via executive order, such as the Pathways Program for current students and recent graduates, and codifies them in law, effectively ensuring the permanence of such programs and insulating them from any potential attempt by a future administration to dismantle them

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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