‘Sitting in limbo’: Career officials, agencies uncertain how hiring freeze will affect student internships



‘Sitting in limbo’: Career officials, agencies uncertain how hiring freeze will affect student internships

By Neelesh Moorthy


Trump signed the order—which calls for a freeze on hiring federal civilian employees—in late January.


Looking to work in the federal government this summer? It’s unclear whether that’s still an option.


President Donald Trump signed an executive order in late January calling for a “freeze on the hiring of federal civilian employees” in the executive branch—meaning that as of January 22, 2017, no vacant positions can be filled and no new positions can be created. The order follows one of Trump’s campaign pledges to curb the size of the federal workforce and will expire as soon as the Office of Management and Budget implements a long-term size reduction plan.


But for the time being, career officials and government agencies are uncertain about whether aspiring student interns are covered by the executive order. Although officials from both the Career Center and the Sanford School of Public Policy have been in contact with agencies, the situation has not yet become clear.


“Students are learning to live with uncertainty, which is not one of those things people like to do,” said Elise Goldwasser, senior internship director at Sanford.


Last Friday, Goldwasser told The Chronicle she got the sense from agencies that the freeze would not apply to unpaid internships, but she could not be sure if that was the case everywhere.


Citing specific examples, she said the Department of Education was continuing its internship program but wanted students to submit their applications 10 days earlier to complete a more rigorous security check. One program through the Department of Justice, she said, will continue this year but will be unpaid instead of paid. Internship status at other agencies such as the State Department is still up in the air.


The Chronicle reached out again Tuesday, and Goldwasser wrote in an email that she had not received any new information. The State Department is trying to keep its internship programs running, said William Wright-Swadel, the Fannie Mitchell executive director at the Career Center.


“They are working very hard to make sure they can continue to hire interns this summer,” he said. “Because if they are right now restricted from hiring full-time, they want to make sure that when the freeze comes up they still need to have people in the pipeline who have had experience in the internship program.”


Based on his prior experience with hiring freezes, Wright-Swadel explained that exemptions for high-demand skills such as computer programming or engineering could be possible. He added that students should not take the freeze as a sign not to apply to the government. But if they do apply, students need to be assertive and follow-up on their applications, he said.


“It’s going to be one of those cases where it’s going to be uneven, and it’s going to ebb and flow over the next several months,” he said.


In an email, Goldwasser wrote that 10 out of approximately 175 undergraduate interns were in federal internships last summer as part of Sanford’s internship program.

She added that it seems federal agencies are themselves working out what the executive order does and does not entail. Responding to inquiries about the matter, Mark Weber from the Department of Health and Human Services and Egan Reich from the Department of Labor were unable to provide concrete responses.


On the other hand, Judith Burns from the Securities and Exchange Commission wrote to The Chronicle that student volunteers—who are unpaid—are still being accepted. In an article from The Washington Post, Jeff Neal, former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security, said volunteer programs are probably still open. He added, however, that paid internships would likely be suspended.


If the uncertainty persists, both Wright-Swadel and Goldwasser agreed that students should avoid putting all their eggs in one basket. Instead, they should branch out to NGOs or local and state governments for internships in their areas of interest.

“There’s a song by Jimmy Cliff called ‘sitting in limbo,’” Goldwasser said. “That’s kind of our theme song this week.”


Editor’s note: The Chronicle communicated with Goldwasser by phone and by email.


Article originally appeared on Duke Chronicle.


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