Corporate America takes the internship online this summer

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College students have already been uprooted from their dorm rooms to their parents’ basements, forced to finish their semester online and faced with the dire prospect of graduating into the worst labor market since the Great Depression.

Now, many can add something else to the list of experiences they’ll miss out on this year: a traditional internship.

U.S. internship openings were 49% lower than the year prior, as of May 11, according to the career site Glassdoor, a much higher decline than for U.S. job openings, which fell 27%.

As a result, many college students will lose out on a rite of passage giving them a toehold in the professional workplace.

Internships that are going ahead this summer will be going virtual, and many will be shorter in length and without some key benefits. Students may get a résumé builder and new contacts, but they’ll miss out on the spontaneous interactions, some of the networking opportunities and the up-close inside looks that have long defined the summer internship.

“Doing it virtually is just not going to confer the same benefits – many internships are about the networking, not the work,” said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at the careers site Glassdoor. While “it’s easy to preserve existing relationships online, it’s hard to build new relationships remotely.”

Then there are the students who won’t be doing an internship at all.

While some 46% of the mostly large employers queried in a late April “quick poll” by the National Association of Colleges and Employers said they would move their programs virtual, nearly 22% said they were planning to revoke offers to interns.

LinkedIn has been filled with reports of rescinded offers, sites like Ismyinternshipcancelled.com have popped up to follow the damage, and students have scrambled to find short-term project experiences to fill the gap.

Brian Kropp, a group vice president at Gartner, said some companies were trying to avoid more strain on employees who were already juggling much more during the pandemic. For many managers, “it’s just not worth it,” he said. “When you look at the average person’s day, they’re working more hours, feeling more stress, feeling more burnout. It just becomes another task for those managers.”

The coronavirus’s overall impact on internships and entry-level hiring could be huge. “I think this will end up being a pretty devastating event for college students,” said Matthew Hora, director of the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Hora points to industries like manufacturing, skilled trades and hard sciences where internships can’t easily go remote. Some employers, such as Owens Corning, have let interns who are rising juniors defer internships to next summer and offered rising seniors some virtual programming this summer. “A large number of our interns are hired through manufacturing development and many of them need to be in our manufacturing facility in our plants,” said Paula Russell, chief human resources officer for the roofing and insulation company.

Those who still have internships say they are grateful to have them, even if a virtual experience will be different.

Kate Stone, who will return to Ford Motor Co. in late June for her second internship with the automaker, said last summer she made “a whole bunch of new friends,” met a top executive and got a feel for Ford’s culture. “It never felt like a big company,” she said. “I was able to go out and do things with them outside of work.”

This year, she’ll be working from her apartment in Houghton, Mich., where she attends Michigan Technological University, rather than at Ford’s Dearborn campus. Online museum tours and virtual happy hours will replace visits to the Henry Ford Museum and picnics on Belle Isle. And her internship will only be eight weeks, instead of about 12 weeks.

But she sees a possible upside. “I think if anything it’ll teach us more,” she said, about being adaptable and working remotely. “This isn’t the ideal situation for an internship,” she said, but “who knows, this could be reality for a little while.”

Others agree that’s a possible advantage. The pandemic, said Hora, should reduce the number of internships that aren’t meaningful – one can’t pour coffee or make copies remotely, after all – while giving interns practice in remote work. “As far as I know, very few career services departments do much training on that,” Hora said. “This is going to be a crash course.”

Career services officers say colleges that didn’t give class credit or grant funding for virtual internships have started doing so, and may continue after this year.

The pandemic could also diversify candidates for internships, which Hora said have long been the “domain of rich kids. It’s not just money but social connections. Do you have a car? At least hypothetically, an online internship gets rid of that.”

Some employers – especially those that rely on intern pipelines for entry-level employees – are trying to create a meaningful experience for interns online. IBM will launch the “IBM Intern Cafe” this summer, using artificial intelligence to match interns with employees and other interns who share similar interests. It is encouraging interns to participate in a TikTok video challenge, as well as assigning them to teams for a three-day “hackathon” to develop tech solutions related to covid-19.

“What’s been most challenging is making sure we’re creating an experience where they would feel they are part of a team and not feel like they’re stuck in their parents’ basement,” said Jennifer Carpenter, vice president of talent acquisition at IBM, which will be hosting nearly 2000 virtual interns this summer.

Ford has been emailing its interns each week to help prepare them for the summer, redesigning projects to fit remote work, sending out backpacks of Ford swag and creating office hours to give managers instant help from H.R. experts. “Six months ago, three months ago – we would have never even considered this,” said Lena Allison, who leads talent acquisition for Ford in the United States.

But interns – and the people who manage them – are still likely to face challenges. “Without that ready access to their supervisor or their colleagues, they will need to find other ways to stay engaged,” said Stacy Bingham, associate dean of the College for Career Development at Vassar College. “The modus operandi is they’ll need to be more proactive.”

Caitlyn McFadden, who recently started a virtual marketing internship at Land O’Lakes, said managers have done an “amazing job” helping her learn the ropes by sharing their screens, setting up video calls and checking in on her frequently.

But the lack of face-to-face interactions has been a struggle. “I live off human interaction,” said McFadden, a University of Kentucky agricultural education major who’s working from Lexington, Ky., rather than at Land O’Lakes’ headquarters near Minneapolis. “It’s been different for me to get to know everyone virtually.” She’s adjusting, she said, by reaching out to set up one-on-one video calls with summer co-workers.

And experts say it will be exceedingly hard to replace the business lunch etiquette, office politics and impromptu networking lessons that an in-person internship has traditionally provided. “What are some of the tacit expectations about how you dress, how you act in meetings?” said Hora. Imparting that “takes somebody who’s patient and is either a natural or a trained teacher. It’s possible a remote internship could pull that off, but I don’t know. I’m skeptical.”

 

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