OPM Guidance Lays Out Vision for ‘Exceptional’ Internship Programs at Agencies

Federal agencies have pledged to hire more than 35,000 interns in fiscal 2023. 

Federal agencies have pledged to hire more than 35,000 interns in fiscal 2023.  gerenme/Getty Images

Agencies should expand the number of interns they hire each year, among other things.

The Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget on Thursday issued long-awaited guidance on how agencies can expand their use of internships and ensure more of those opportunities are paid.

Revitalizing federal agencies’ internship programs, which have seen dramatic decreases in the number of participants over the last decade, has been a priority for the Biden administration as it seeks to improve recruitment of young people into the federal workforce. In 2021, OPM issued regulations aimed at making it easier for agencies to hire college students and recent graduates, and last year officials announced that all White House internships would be paid.

Offering internships that are paid are also a key piece of the administration’s diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility strategic plan, as unpaid internships often effectively exclude applicants from minority and other underserved communities who cannot afford to work without pay.

“For many, an internship that does not offer any form of compensation (e.g., housing stipends, recruitment incentives or financial arrangements with third-party organizations) is the illusion of opportunity, further complicated by the practical needs of having a paying job while not enrolled in traditional coursework,” the guidance states.

Thursday’s guidance outlines how agencies can expand the use of internships and other early career opportunities, make those experiences worthwhile for participants and leverage that into a revamped infrastructure to recruit young people into government.

“Early career programs are a critical pathway into federal service,” said OPM Director Kiran Ahuja in a statement. “Whether someone is entering the workforce for the first time or changing professions, these programs offer public servants an opportunity to demonstrate their talents and potential. By increasing opportunities and removing barriers to hiring interns, fellows, and apprentices, federal agencies can boost their talent pipelines and better serve the American people.”

Federal agencies have already pledged to hiring more than 35,000 interns in fiscal 2023. The guidance says agencies should endeavor to prioritize making those internships paid, except in cases where a college or university bars payment due to participants’ receipt of college credit for the experience.

“Agencies should increase the use of student employment programs and other hiring authorities, to help open paths to employment and opportunities for all,” the memo states. “Moreover, agencies should consider compensation practices that are fair and provide equal opportunity. This may come in the form of hourly compensation from the agency itself, or arrangements involving other forms of compensation, including, for example, stipends, recruitment incentives, travel benefits and financial arrangements with third-party organizations.”

In addition to simply increasing participation in internship programs, OPM and OMB tasked agencies with incorporating the use of internships in their succession planning, talent management, and skills and competency gap assessments. And agencies should ensure that enough resource are devoted to internship programs to make those experiences attractive and valuable to participants.

“[Agencies should] ensure adequate staff and resources are allocated to promote, utilize and administer these programs,” the guidance states. “This should include adequate in-kind support to the interns, fellows and apprentices in the form of mentorship, the fostering of inclusion and belonging, and appropriate onboarding and training for access to formal and informal processes and routines.”

Officials should also set up agency-wide mechanisms in order to more easily convert interns into permanent employees upon the completion of their internships. OPM said in the guidance that it plans to issue additional regulatory proposals in the coming months to institute additional improvements to the government’s internship offerings.