Agencies struggle to adjust to new Pathways internship program

Wednesday - 6/4/2014, 4:13am EDT

Jason Miller, Executive Editor, Federal News Radio

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Agencies are unhappy with the limitations under the new Pathways internship program. Almost two years after the Office of Personnel Management issued the program's final rule, agency use of Pathways is underwhelming.

While part of the issue with Pathways is that agencies need to adjust to the new requirements, there are some deeper, intrinsic issues.

"The thing about the Pathways program that hurts us at this point is not that so much you have to do a vacancy announcement, but you can't do a targeted vacancy announcement. So you can't point your announcement at certain schools to get the kind of talent you used to get in the past. It makes it a little more cumbersome," said Kevin Mahoney, the Commerce Department's chief human capital officer, Tuesday at the Association of Government Accountants CFO-CIO Summit in Washington. "OPM is well aware of our concerns about the program, and I believe they are doing something to address it. However, it's still an important program."

He added the fact that Pathways also includes the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program is a significant benefit that agencies need to take more advantage of to bring in highly-qualified employees.

Mike Casella, the CFO at the General Services Administration, said one of the biggest problems he sees with Pathways is agencies haven't figured out how to use the program yet.

"We put out announcements where[ever], because the thinking is interns need only general qualifications. We've got a finance internship program where we had a nurse that we basically had to hire, that had literally no finance background whatsoever. And that was because — and I hope this will change — of the idea you don't have to target this at all because it's an entry-level position," he said. "Any of you who have tried to hire, even GS-5s or GS-7s into a finance program or into an IT program know that's not true. You still want someone with some combination of educational and work experience coming in."

Changes to PMF program adds to challenges

An OPM official said by email Pathways does give agencies broad flexibility for targeted requirements.

"In the case of Pathways internship positions, agencies may develop their qualification standards to target the required skills or occupations for the positions they are seeking to fill," the official said. "For the Recent Graduates program, agencies such as [the Defense Department] and NASA are strategically recruiting for specific skill sets that help fulfill mission critical duties. DoD recruits for mission critical career fields, such as accounting, finance and engineering."

But it's not just Pathways that is frustrating agencies. Casella said there also are some shortcomings around the PMF program.

"As a former [PMF] myself, I think it was a huge mistake for OPM to get rid of the interview process for the PMF program. I think that really made a difference in bringing in people who you could have some confidence who had already hit a certain bar coming in," he said. "I went through the process. I thought it was hard. It was a little scary, but that's the point. You want people who actually have hit that bar. Now making it just a paper process, there still are a lot of good PMFs that are coming, but I don't think it's entirely coincidental that, my understanding is this year there were huge numbers of PMFs who were not taken by agencies. I think the lack of the interview and generally it's not as selective of a program as it used to be."

Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, said he agreed with Casella that OPM's decision not to continue interviews hurt the PMF program.

He said part of the reason for changing the process was budget and sequestration related. Stier added the lack of agency participation in the PMF program also was in part due to sequestration and the shutdown.

The OPM official said it's helping agencies address the need to recruit for certain skillsets, including implementing a PMF track specific to the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) positions to help agencies better address skills shortages in these occupations.

"OPM has worked in partnership with federal agencies throughout the entire Pathways process in order to help establish the Pathways programs. In 2011, OPM established a Pathways Advisory Council to prepare agencies for a successful implementation of these new programs," the official said. "The Pathways Advisory Council continues to meet in the form of a monthly call in order to answer inquiries and foster stronger collaboration. OPM is working with [more than] 60 federal agencies to assist with the recruitment of students and recent graduates through the Pathways programs. OPM has conducted workshops, panel discussions and participated in job fairs. All agencies with a Pathways program must designate a Pathways program officer (PPO). OPM has established an 'office hours' virtual meeting for Pathways program officers and Presidential Management Fellows coordinators held the fourth Wednesday of each month. Typically, approximately 30 agencies participate in the meeting."