Internship programs offer students and entry level employees opportunities to gain real experience and employers a chance to meet new candidates. However, according to a 2020 survey of more than 900 current college students conducted by acquisition software company Yello, more than one third of scheduled internships have been cancelled this year in the wake of COVID-19..
While some companies opted to cancel their internships altogether, others decided to virtualize their programs in hopes of salvaging the traditionally reliable talent pipeline. With some key adjustments, many found that the benefits of dedicating resources to onboarding and managing remote interns paid off, uncovering helpful insights for other businesses considering whether or not to pull the plug on their own programs in the fall and beyond.
Passionate About the Cause
Despite the disruption and uncertainty, many potential candidates eager to find internship programs, even if they’ve been virtualized. Many find the chance to hone their skills and build their resumes through internships extremely valuable, especially as competition for jobs has become hyper competitive in a candidate-heavy market.
“All the internships just fell through,” says Chloe Young, a pre-med student at Cornell University. She, and most of her peers, had anticipated securing medical research internships this summer, but when they dried up, she started looking elsewhere.
This generation are already mobile vets, and they will teach their future employers how to work remotely.
—Steve Cooper, founder and CEO, Exelaration
Eventually Young found Leda Health, a New York-based medical device company focused on reproductive health justice and sexual assault prevention. She landed an internship on Leda’s marketing team, where she is helping to create social media posts, podcasts and educational materials for sexual assault survivors. It’s not the kind of work Young expected to be doing, but she sees it as a valuable addition to her resume. “It’s something I am passionate about, and it will look good on a med school application,” she says.
While many companies cut their internship programs as soon as the workforce went remote, Leda Health’s CEO, Madison Campbell, saw the value of continuing the program regardless of where students were based. “Interns can take the pressure off employees trying to figure out how to work in this environment,” Campbell says. And because most of her generation are already comfortable engaging virtually, the transition hasn’t been difficult. “We are already doing online classes. This isn’t any different.”
CEOs like Campbell have figured out what a lot of business leaders are missing — college students and recent grads have the ambition and skills to work comfortably in a remote environment and they appreciate the opportunity to do it.
“They are grateful to have jobs and they ready to hustle,” says Samantha Frontera, founder of Exclusive PR, a boutique PR firm in Chicago that caters to physicians and health care organizations. Frontera has always worked with interns, partnering with local colleges to ensure students get course credit for their efforts.
Virtual Onboarding and Management
Frontera had three interns lined up when COVID hit, and despite her concerns about having them work remotely, she kept them on board. “It’s worked out well,” she says, though she admits that onboarding was a challenge.
Like most managers, Frontera likes to spend one-on-one time with new employees and interns, getting them accustomed to the company mission and workflow, and overseeing their work as they get settled. Replicating that via Zoom meetings took some trial and error, but they figured it out.
To help interns get acclimated, Frontera crafted a series of ‘how to’ lists for tasks like creating a pitch and talking to media, which she practices with them remotely. “I show them how we do things, then they show me,” she says.
Nathan Branch is one of Frontera’s interns, and he’s loving the job. “I wasn’t concerned about being virtual, because I’m still learning and growing, and getting experience with an agency,” he says. Branch notes that many of the larger PR agencies immediately shut down their internship programs, which he thinks was short-sighted. “Internships are opportunity to expose students to the industry, and help them gain perspective and work experience.”
Steve Cooper, founder and CEO of Exelaration, a software development company in Virginia, agrees. Exelaration’s business model is based on giving students hands-on development experience so they can build their skills while creating high-quality technology at a lower cost. Cooper hires many of the interns once they graduate and encourages his clients to consider them for their own businesses.
Normally the interns work at the company’s development center adjacent to Virginia Tech, where they are mentored by six senior software engineers. When everyone went remote, Cooper didn’t hesitate to keep the program. “It’s the center of our business model so we couldn’t cut it,” he says. They just transitioned all of their interactions to Zoom and Slack.
Cooper now hosts daily virtual stand-up meetings with the whole team and asks interns to check in and out daily via Slack with their mentors to make sure they are engaged and productive.
Emily Murphy is one of Exelaration’s interns. The industrial systems engineer was part of the internship program before the pandemic, and she says the transition to virtual was fairly easy.
Prior to the pandemic, she’d check in with her mentor in person, then go to work on her laptop. “If I had a question, I could walk across the hall to get help,” she says. Now she does that via Slack. And if she’s struggling with a piece of code, they work on it together via document sharing tools, which she’s found to be more efficient than talking through the changes. “It looks different, but the communication and collaboration is the same,” she says.
Cooper believes working virtually has actually added more value to the program. “This generation are already mobile vets, and they will teach their future employers how to work remotely,” he says. “Having the opportunity to work as virtual interns is just giving them a head start.”
How to Make the Most of a Virtual Intern
All of these interns and business owners agreed that virtual internships still add value for students, recent grads, and employers. They offered these five pieces of advice on how to make the most of these novel work arrangements.
1. Make them feel welcome.
Interns want to get to know the company and the people, even if they never meet face-to-face, Murphy says. At Exelaration, the team hosts virtual happy hours and game nights to help everyone feel engaged. “It shows the company cares and conveys the corporate culture,” she says.
2. Create space to ask questions and get training.
It takes time for anyone to learn an organization’s workflow and processes, especially if they are virtual, says Frontera. So be patient and encourage new team members to reach out. “I always tell them, ‘If you need to see it again, just ask and we can do another Zoom call,'” she says.
3. Check in—a lot.
Young advises team leaders to set daily meetings to touch base, because interns may not reach out on their own for help. “There are a lot more distractions working from home,” she says. “So it's important to stay connected.”
4. Think carefully before cancelling your internship program.
“There is always something an intern can do, even in the current situation,” Branch says. Instead of shutting the program down, he advises companies to brainstorm ways they can still make it work.
Remember, a good current intern may make a great future employee. When the pandemic is over, unemployment rates are likely going to plummet again, and companies won’t be able to find enough talent, Cooper says. “Interns offer a link between students and employees.” He notes that when companies hire interns, they tend to ramp-up faster, and are more loyal to the company, making them a great low-cost investment. “I can’t imagine why anyone would cut their internship programs,” he adds. “If anything, it is a good time to add more.”
5. Virtual interns still deserve to be paid.
As we have all learned by now, working from home is still work. If your interns are putting in the hours and churning out results, pay them accordingly—even if they never set foot in the office.
Photo: Getty Images