Federal Government Internships Offer Hope in the Tight Economy

By Laura Kapelski

Statistics on rising unemployment and decreased hiring projections across widespread career industries have led college students to wonder about their career possibilities and competitiveness in a tight job market. These challenging times also present difficulties for college career counselors. In particular, counselors must manage college students' expectations of the job market while at the same time offering strategies and tips for obtaining career related experiences. 

Rising Opportunities with the Federal Government

Despite the current difficult economic times, career counselors can look to specific industries and niche markets for growing career opportunities. According to a recent survey by The Partnership for Public Service (2009), more than 80 percent of respondents from nearly 200 colleges and universities indicate a moderate or significant increase in student interest on how to find federal jobs and internships (Vogel, S., 2009). Respondents to the survey attributed the heightened interest to fewer opportunities in the private sector, the security offered by federal jobs, and President Obama's call to service initiatives.  Opportunities for part-time and full-time internships are widespread and are occupied by students across the nation. Annually, close to 20,000 college students come to Washington for summer internships (Libit, D., & Handzlik, A., 2009). The Partnership for Public Service indicated earlier this year that the federal  government expected to hire 60,000 student interns nationwide in summer 2009, with opportunities for students in every major within approximately 100 agencies.

Student Participation in Federal Internships

Students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia have found promising and widespread opportunities for career experience within the federal government. George Mason University's Cooperative Education Program is a paid internship program where students complete 12 weeks of substantive, project-oriented work experiences and earn an official notation on their academic transcript. Given George Mason's proximity to the nation's capital, students have participated in federal government internships for many years. However, in the last year the tightening job market and the federal government's need to replace a retiring work force has created the perfect opportunity for college students to obtain career related internships. One program in particular that has exhibited increased participation levels is the federal government's Student Career Experience Program (SCEP). SCEP allows college students to work for a federal agency/department in an internship capacity for up to 640 hours while they complete their degree. Then, upon completion of the program and their degree, students may be offered the opportunity to be non-competitively converted into a full-time position.

One example of a successful SCEP program is with the Army's Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems (PEO EIS), headquartered at Fort Belvoir, VA.  With a mission of providing large-scale Army-wide information technology (IT) systems, PEO EIS has employed IT students at their southeastern Virginia facility for the past ten years.  Recently, however, PEO EIS expanded their SCEP program to include business, finance and communications students from Northern Virginia colleges, including George Mason University.  Catherine Doolos, Deputy Program Executive Officer and SCEP Coordinator, explains, "Employing SCEP students is definitely a win-win situation for us. We get the advantage of having smart, eager employees with formal training in their majors.  In turn, they receive hands-on experience in their field as well as learning about the Government, DoD, and particularly the Army.  We have the opportunity to hire them directly and do not have to go through the Government's competitive hiring process.  That is a real advantage to the students and PEO EIS."

George Mason University's student participation in federal internships has increased over the last year. In particular, nine School of Management students participated in a SCEP internship with the federal government in the spring 2008 semester. In the spring 2009 semester, Mason's School of Management student enrollment for SCEP opportunities more than doubled to 22 students.  Summer participation in SCEP opportunities continued to rise to 35. SOM students like Dimitirous Koumas, an accounting student, find that their SCEP opportunities have been very rewarding: "I would say that overall it has been a good experience.  I have learned a great deal about myself and what I would like to do post-undergrad.  The work I am doing is fulfilling, in that my agency investigates people who steal money out of employee retirement and health funds, and the experience is invaluable. Government job experience on a resume is a powerful asset to have when applying in a tough job market."

Tips for College Career Counselors

Job Search Resources for Federal Government Internships/Jobs



Libit, D. & Handzlik, A. (2009, July 14).  Interns clamor for government jobs.  Politico.  Retrieved July 23, 2009, from:   http://www.politico.com/

The Partnership for Public Service. (2009, April).  Leaving talent on the table: The need to capitalize on high performing student interns. Retrieved July 23, 2009, from http://www.ourpublicservice.org/OPS/pressroom/

Vogel, S. (2009, May 1).  Survey finds college students more interested in federal jobs. The Washington Post.  Retreived July 23, 2009, from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/

 Laura Kapelski Laura Kapelski, MS, is a Career Consultant in the School of Management at George Mason University. She manages the internship programs for business students and assists students with career readiness and job search strategies. Laura holds a Master of Science degree in College Student Personnel from Miami University. She can be reached at lrhoade1@gmu.edu.

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