There is less excitement and enthusiasm in federal hallways, fewer water cooler conversations about where to find the best deals on food, and office noise levels have returned to normal.

These are telltale signs that the summer internship season is over.

But, how many of those interns were or will be offered full-time employment with your agency?

Overall, the number of individuals hired for per­manent jobs from the ranks of federal internships is intolerably low and pales in comparison to the private sec­tor. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, nearly 60% of interns are converted to full-time employment.

Research by my nonprofit organization, the Partnership for Public Service, shows that less than 7% percent of federal interns are converted to government jobs.

In part, this low conversion rate is due to agencies’ heavy reliance on the Student Temporary Employment Program, which is not designed to lead to permanent employment, rather than the Student Career Experience Program (SCEP ) that enables direct conversation to full-time federal service.

Luckily, we’re now on the verge of reforming federal internship programs to make them more user-friendly for both agencies and students–and to truly view them as potential “pathways” to employment. Proposed regulations on the new Pathways Programs released this month call for a single “Internship Program” in which all student interns will be eligible–but not entitled–to conversion.

This new Internship Program is designed for high school, vocational and technical, undergraduate and graduate students. Agencies will be able to convert interns who successfully complete the program’s requirements to any competitive service position for which the intern is qualified.

The government’s poor use of internships has stemmed from a lack of understanding about the different internship programs, the perceived burden of shepherding students through the process…and agency leaders who do not view internships as a key source of entry-level talent.

These long overdue changes recognize what private sector employers have long understood. Internships offer students an intuitive, efficient and attractive way to explore careers and provide employers a low-risk means to assess potential employees on the job.

As the Office of Personnel Management stated in its proposed regulations, “Interns will be given an extended ‘on-the-job tryout,’ which is a relatively high indicator of future success on the job, significantly higher than considering experience or educational level alone.”

But let’s not bank on the new Internship Program itself automatically leading to increased conversion of talented interns to federal employment.

The government’s poor use of internships up to now has stemmed from a lack of understanding about the different internship programs, the perceived burden of shepherding students through the process that can lead to full-time employment, and agency leaders who do not view internships as a key source of entry-level talent.

Yes, fixing the system and structure will help bring about some improvements, but if hiring managers only view interns as seasonal work or cheap labor, government will continue to lose out on top, proven talent.

There’s no need to wait until the new Internship Program regulations are finalized – most likely not until early 2012 – to start making changes in your agency. Instead, begin the transformation now by:

  • Aligning internships with your agency’s mission-critical and hard-to-fill hiring needs. Identify where your agency expects to make multiple entry-level hires in the future and develop your internships in those areas.
  • Keeping in touch with interns who have not yet graduated. Don’tsimply wave good-bye or adopt the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. Send periodic emails on new developments and job opportunities at your agency to those who have had recent internships.
  • Collecting information from your interns on their experience. What information, if any, did you receive from outgoing summer interns that will help you improve your student programs in the future? If you haven’t already done so, conduct a quick survey to determine the quality of their experience. What did interns value most about their experience? Are they interested in future employment with your agency? If not, why?
  • Holding managers accountable for providing a meaningful experience for interns and focusing on internships for what they should be – a pipeline to full-time employment.

How is your agency utilizing internships as a primary pipeline of entry-level talent? Please share your tips stories and challenges below, or email me at [email protected].