The shift to remote work during the pandemic means many companies are adapting how they operate, even as they’re continuing to seek ways to bring new talent into the fold.
As office closings to stop the spread of COVID-19 stretch on into a new season and particularly the summer, it offers a reminder that internships are among those areas that have a new mode of operation for companies.
Oriented toward building skills for workforces, it’s an area where existing — albeit mostly IRL — infrastructure is in place. As the tech community has grown, support for internships in Maryland has expanded in recent years. In August of 2018, the Maryland Technology Internship Program (MTIP), which is funded by the State of Maryland and administered by UMBC, started offering funding for tech companies bringing on interns. It has since supported 600 participants, and the matchmaking between students hasn’t slowed down during the pandemic, said Annie Weinschenk, the program’s assistant director.
To explore best practices for internship programs and remote work, Technical.ly and MTIP teamed up for a webinar that was held virtually on June 18, titled “How to Save the Internship” and featuring company leaders who are part of the MTIP program, including:
- Annie Weinschenk, assistant director at MTIP
- Ajay K. Gupta, CEO at HSR.health
- Pramod Raheja, CEO at Airgility, Inc.
- James Collins, program manager at Index Analytics LLC
- Richard Kleidman, COO at AirPhoton LLC
- Alex Galiani, business development manager at Technical.ly (moderator)
From the session, here’s a look at takeaways for internship programs that can be applied for the current moment:
Internships are a two-way street.
When talking about internships, panelists returned to the central point that it should benefit both the company and the intern. And, as Gupta said, it’s also a chance for students to learn, as well as build career skills.
Kleidman said AirPhoton, a bwtech@UMBC-based company that develops instruments to measure particulate matter in the air, has long worked with students and the company has found benefits for both participants in that relationship.
“It really is a give and take,” he said. “We really do get valuable input and valuable production from our students and I think they learn a lot from being with us.”
It’s also important to think about the capacity it will take to oversee an intern. For one, Kleidman pointed out that it’s important that staff who run an internship program are allowed enough professional time to give it their attention.
Hiring tip: Think self-starter.
The remote environment introduces flexibility, but it’s also one of autonomy. When it comes to hiring, panelists said they’ve found it is especially important to seek out candidates who can work independently.
“When you choose your interns you have to make sure theres a degree of self motivating there,” said Kleidman. Just to look at GPA is not going to tell you, by far, everything you need to know. You need to find someone who is a bit of a self-starter, and that really helps in the virtual world.”
To identify these candidates, Index Analytics’ Collins said it is important to ask questions during an interview that go beyond the resume and GPA. These include questions like: “I want to know who you are as a person and why are you looking for this internship. What can you bring to the table and how can we help you?” he said.
When they start, panelists said it’s important for companies to create structure to ensure participants have a good experience. One way to do this is through specific policies for remote work to set rules and boundaries, Weinschenk said.
It’s also important to remember that interns are joining the company’s team, even if it is not as a full-time employee. So creating ways to stay in touch for the duration of a program can help interns stay connected to the company. Establishing regular check-ins and pairing interns with specific members of the team can also help to guide interns and build a rapport with the company. When it comes to the work itself, Weinschenk said a learning plan can help to hold everyone accountable for what needs to get done.
It’s also important to take some time to get to know interns. Allowing students to participate in companywide meetings and events is one way to activate inclusion. At Airgility, Raheja said interns join a weekly hourlong meeting where members of the University of Maryland College Park spinout that works on unmanned systems technology get on the same page, and take time to learn from others.
And the panelists offered a reminder: Make it fun. Weinschenk said one company set aside time to talk about prom dresses, just to get to know each other.
Create flexible skill-building opportunities.
At Index Analytics, 100 interns have come through the Baltimore-based healthcare data company. One of the company’s internship programs is focused around a curriculum that offers data skills. This work has a flexible schedule, Collins said. And as a benefit, there’s an opportunity for participants to receive a certification in a specific area upon completion.
This can help provide the skills that lead directly to a job. With such certifications in hand, Collins said Index Analytics has hired a number of the interns in full-time roles.
Providing opportunities for new experiences can also help students gain the kinds of skills that will eventually lead to jobs, at the company where they’re currently working or elsewhere, Weinschenk said.
“I always encourage bringing students out of their comfort zones, especially in the tech world, to do other things and make them a more well-rounded candidate as they enter the workforce,” she said.
In an era of remote work, there are new opportunities for flexibility, given that folks can set their own schedules outside the office. This can play to an advantage for interns as long as there are still opportunities to ask questions.
“The best mentors I’ve had in my life are those who give me time to learn,” Kleidman said.
Seek out diverse candidates.
Along with the pandemic, the national conversation about systemic racism is putting a focus on the need to create more opportunities for Black and brown people in industries including technology, where women and people of color have long been underrepresented as a whole.
Panelists said internships can be a place to start. Weinschenk said increasing opportunity and access were a main focus of MTIP, and said 56% of the participants so far are people of color. She added that they still have work to do.
By providing opportunities that could ultimately lead to full-time roles, internships offer an opportunity to build diverse pipelines into tech companies.
“You really cannot have a diverse workforce at any level in an organization unless there are opportunities at the levels below for people to build the skills,” Gupta said. An internship, he said, “is an opportunity for people to gain work skills within their industry or outside their industry … so they can succeed in the workplace and rise up.”
In a majority Black city where divides have long brought socioeconomic disadvantages along racial lines, connecting with programs that work directly with youth from can also create these pipelines. Baltimore programs such as NPower, participants said, work with youth in Baltimore and are looking to connect with tech companies. For its part, Index Analytics works with Code in the Schools to help introduce tech skills to students in elementary and middle schools.
The panelists representing early-stage companies said they were building diverse teams.
“When you have a diverse group of people, you’re going to make better decisions, your’e going to be a stronger company and I think the data would support that,” Raheja said.
Knowledge is power!
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