Companies lean in to remote internships

As companies quickly switched from in-person to remote work in spring 2020, the career services department at Oregon State University’s College of Engineering saw their students’ internships being canceled left and right. And so when an opportunity came along to pilot virtual internships, the college jumped on it. 

More than just filling an immediate opportunity gap caused by the pandemic, the 10-week “microinternship” program has ended up becoming a new kind of learning experience for Oregon State’s students, the program’s facilitators said. Students worked remotely and tackled projects with employers such as a small health-care business, a major school district, and a nuclear energy company. Students were paid, the college said, and finished the experience feeling prepared for future internships and jobs.

It’s one example of the new kind of internships students have undertaken in the last year and a half as the pandemic upended the in-person model. According to a recent survey of 200 large companies by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 82 percent offered some sort of remote or hybrid internship for summer 2021.

Now, what started as a stopgap looks to become a permanent feature of the world of work. That same NACE survey found that half the companies said they were very or extremely likely to continue offering those kinds of internships, even when workplaces go back to in person.

Understanding why is critical for both colleges and employers. The picture is still developing, but some things are clear:

  • For some experiences, remote options just don’t work as well. GE, for example, has found that interns in product engineering need to be able to see and touch what they’re working on.
  • But for many others, virtual options can widen opportunity for students and the candidate pool for employers by removing geographic, cost of living, and certain time barriers. And remote work frees up both businesses and colleges to experiment with new approaches, like microinternships, that a student would likely never travel for.

And substantial numbers of employers seem to like the fully online or hybrid approach, in large part because they believe it attracts a larger and more diverse candidate pool. Employers also think the approach provides a good experience: nine out of 10 employers in the NACE survey believed their remote or hybrid internships were very or extremely effective in offering meaningful work.

Understanding what specifically has worked well with virtual internships—and what hasn’t—will be important moving forward. “They could be here to stay,” said Shawn VanDerziel, executive director of NACE.

Widening the pool?

Remote internships appear to have staying power, in large part because they’ve allowed business to recruit from anywhere without asking students to move. That opens up opportunities for students who because of finances, family obligations, or other reasons can’t pick up and go somewhere else for an internship.

“Having employers across the nation is huge for us,” says Erich White, assistant director of career services for Oregon State’s College of Engineering, who helps run the microinternship program.

Interns from Oregon State University at the state’s Department of Transportation in 2018, before COVID-19 canceled or moved many internships online. (Oregon DOT/Wikimedia Commons)

The land-grant university serves a number of lower-income and first-generation students who are less able to travel for internships. The ability to work anywhere also helped international engineering students, who were able to complete the largely asynchronous microinternships from different countries, including Taiwan.

San Mateo Community College District in California is using a different angle: offering its local students virtual global internships with companies in countries like Australia, India, and South Africa. Other institutions—from Northeastern Illinois University to the Houston Community College System to Bunker Hill Community College—have seen the move to virtual recruiting and remote work open up more internship opportunities and chances to explore potential careers for their students.

For employers, that widens their applicant pool. Many employers, from museums to major financial firms, say that remote internships helped them have a more diverse candidate pool, and there’s evidence that women and people of color are more likely to prefer virtual recruiting and internship experiences than their male or white peers. A recent national Student Voice survey, for example, found that students of color were twice as likely as white ones to prefer virtual internships.

Gut check: The Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin, however, found a more mixed picture in a much-cited study that looked at the experiences of almost 10,000 students at 11 four-year colleges across the country in 2020. It found that participants in online internships were more likely to be nonwhite, but also more likely to come from higher-income families and ones with a history of college-going. 

Online internships also were more likely to be unpaid than in-person ones, 42 percent versus 35 percent—“which is itself a big problem,” said Matthew Hora, director of the center and associate professor of adult and higher education at Wisconsin. And remote interns in the study reported lower satisfaction and less career benefit than those with in-person experiences.

“While I’m not prepared to say that definitively remote or hybrid internships are not effective or beneficial, the early data is decidedly mixed,” Hora said. “And they are not the panacea that some thought they would be with respect to solving the access and equity problem.”

But, as with remote teaching, the virtual internships employers and colleges are designing today look different than those rolled out in the initial rush of the early pandemic. “They have found a way to provide these interns with assignments that they believe are meaningful for the organization and the interns,” VanDerziel says. 

Student demographic and opinion data from internships in summer 2021 will be telling, he and other experts said. 

The Liberty Mutual Insurance world headquarters building, located in Boston. (Wikimedia Commons)

On the job: Liberty Mutual had already been experimenting with virtual recruiting and hybrid internships when the pandemic moved it to fully embrace virtual work and internships. It continued to refine the model, and the 2021 summer intern group was the most diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender since the company began tracking, said Maura Quinn, assistant vice president, campus recruiting programs.

So, while Liberty Mutual is planning a return to in-person work, the company is also planning to continue virtual recruiting for internships and to offer a remote work option for interns who want or need it. Taking a flexible approach will allow the company to focus on hiring the best students, regardless of whether they can come to Boston for the summer. 

“We don’t want to stop that,” she said. 

More than the same old internship online

Internships done virtually also don’t have to follow the in-person playbook, just from a remote location. They free up companies to experiment with new approaches to engaging students. 

KPMG expects to go to a hybrid approach for its traditional summer internships and is exploring ways it might use its remote-working technology to offer microinternships during the academic year, says Kathy Schaum, executive director for university talent acquisition.

At Discover, all college recruiting will be done virtually in order to expand access, says Simon Kho, director of emerging talent acquisition and development. And the company is exploring ways to create a hybrid model for internships that would offer remote work and also bring interns together, in person, for important moments.   

New reality of work: For many companies, virtual or hybrid is simply the way professionals are going to work going forward. And internships need to reflect that.

Virtual experiences can help students develop the skills to work remotely, such as being self-directed and self-motivated or able to work in teams with members located in different places and different time zones.

“Working virtually is a skill in itself,” says Nikki James, an assistant teaching professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

Her research focuses on broadening participation in experiential learning using technology, and she helped design Practera, an experiential learning platform that connects employers and students. For the past few years, she’s worked with her own university, high school jobs programs, and other institutions across the country, including nearby Bunker Hill Community College and Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, N.C., to facilitate internships and virtual work.

Her research has shown that online platforms like Practera can extend instructors’ reach into the internship experience. They can see what students are working on, check in on whether they are developing critical workplace skills, and identify where they might be getting stuck. If there are points where interns could use extra coaching or support, the instructors can provide that and ensure the experience is a good one for both sides. 

Companies find, tackle challenges

Working virtually with interns, who are often new to the professional workplace, certainly brings challenges. In summer 2020, technology was an issue, as issues with supply chains made getting the interns the technology they needed difficult. That was largely fixed by summer 2021, with companies shipping laptops or hotspots to set interns up to join their virtual teams.

There aren’t off-the-shelf solutions for other challenges of virtual internships. Some lines of work simply do not translate well. GE, for example, aims to go back to in-person internships when possible, because it’s hard for engineering interns not to be able to touch or take apart the products they are working on, says Tony Denhart, university relations director for the company. “Unless you can touch or feel it, it’s tough to really—literally—see it.” 

Also missing and hard to replicate was the casual conversations and by-chance meetings that help interns build a network, problem solve, or learn about different jobs in the company.

The company will continue to offer virtual introductions to careers through its free Experiences Program on the Forage platform, Denhart said. Students participate in a three- to four-hour, self-directed experience and get a certificate upon completion, along with a better understanding of what a full internship might be like.

(Surface/Unsplash)

Remote, not isolated: Companies across the board looked for creative solutions to the challenge of how to offer connection and networking opportunities to their remote interns. Liberty Mutual invited interns to join employee affinity groups online and set them up with employee “peer” mentors who were early in their careers and had gone through internship programs themselves. KPMG expanded its mentor matches throughout the company, since people no longer needed to be in the same location. And GE offered talks with executives and team leaders on topics of interest.

Oregon State hosted an online event at the end of the microinternship where students gave a one-slide, five-minute presentation of the projects they worked on to all of the employers and other interns, followed by a question-and-answer session. A bonus: some students then used those slides in successfully applying for further internships or jobs, says Josefine Fleetwood, the college’s employer relations manager.

Learning to navigate: Beyond networking, companies quickly learned that not everyone knows how to navigate remote work, and many companies or the education platforms they use stepped in to offer specific training in this area.

Discover offered interns a remote work stipend so they could buy headsets, keyboards, or other items they needed to help them work well in their homes. And the company added a training session on remote work before this past summer’s internships started. The session talked about how to appear professional and engaged online—set up a workspace, add a photo to one’s Outlook so people can connect a name with a face—and how to best use different forms of communication to connect with managers, Kho said. Because remote interns were not able to observe professional norms and the company’s culture by working side by side with employees, the training was a way to share that kind of knowledge.  

“Having these training sessions really helped introduce these ideas to help them acclimate and set them up for success,” Kho said.  

Liberty Mutual provided training and resources for employees on how to best manage and mentor interns while being remote, including a dedicated site for asking questions in real time. Regular communication and feedback are especially critical in the virtual environment, and some employers added extra calls or meetings to make sure interns were clear on the work they were doing.

Anil Kumar, who runs RxHomeTest, a small company that provides at-home medical testing, worked with engineering interns from Oregon State. After hosting two interns virtually with mixed results—one student flourished on their own, but the other was less connected—Kumar instituted a weekly one-hour call over Zoom with the next two interns. That extra time to connect helped build a stronger relationship with the interns, he said, assisting in the company’s goal of developing long-term relationships with interns who work there. 

This year, and beyond

Companies are still weighing the positives and the negatives of remote internships—and remote work more broadly—but it’s clear that virtual and hybrid internships will be far more common in the years to come than they were before the pandemic. For remote programs that are carrying forward, expect to see a greater focus on:

Peer mentoring and cohorts. One of the biggest takeaways, according to multiple companies, was the importance and success of peer mentors or cohorts. Whether these groupings occurred organically or by design, this allowed interns to share information, ask questions of each other when they hit roadblocks—instead of having to go to a manager—and support one another in a new and challenging virtual work environment.

At KPMG, the company saw interns crowdsourcing information with one another. At Discover, the company formed “intern families,” groups of eight to 10 interns from different colleges and working in different divisions who came together virtually every two weeks to discuss certain topics and get to know one another. In the peer groups, “the knowledge sharing is more fluid,” Kho said.

The company likes the cohort model so much that it has expanded it to its new hires right out of college, having them start at the same time so they have a peer group as they start their careers. 

Using remote-work technology to offer internship experiences that go beyond the traditional model. This can include shorter internships during the school year, hybrid models for students who need to stay remote, or project-based experiences that are built into college courses. Work experiences that are part of a course could focus on teaching an individual skill, such as working in remote teams, that could be stacked with others, said James, the researcher at Northeastern.  

Ensuring students are doing meaningful work. Technology can help colleges and instructors see and enhance the quality of the learning experience and help students integrate it into their academic and career pathways. The stakes are especially high for populations who typically cannot do an internship, said Kemi Jona, James’s research colleague and assistant vice chancellor for digital innovation and enterprise learning at Northeastern.

“For working adults or other students who can barely afford the time, it better be a good experience,” he said. “They just don’t have a lot of slack in their schedule to have a meaningless experience. The stakes are much higher.”

Building remote-work skills. More broadly, whether students are interning remotely or not, employers are going to increasingly expect them to have remote-working skills when they graduate.  

“Personally I believe this is going to be some sort of new normal,” said Kumar of RxHomeTest. 

When he was a Ph.D. student in engineering, he couldn’t imagine work being anything other than in person on a corporate campus. Now, the workplace has changed, and he runs a company focused on delivering health-care tests to people’s homes where the employees are all remote. “I think academia needs to prepare their students with this mind-set, that they should be able to work remotely this way.” 

From his perspective, “location is a nonissue going forward.” But building the skills to work from anywhere? That’s a big issue.

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