Internships are often the launchpad students need to start their careers. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as companies have navigated choppy economic waters and a shift to remote work, many have dramatically altered or downsized their work-to-learn programs — or cut them altogether.
At the end of April 2020, 16% of companies reported revoking their internship offers, and of internships that continued after the start of the pandemic, 40% of companies shifted their intern programs online and 20% reduced the number of internships they would offer, per data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
In Philadelphia, Technical.ly reported last spring on tech companies such as Guru and Monetate that paused their summer internship programs, and others that switched to virtual right away, such as SAP and Freedom Mortgage.
What do such programs look like in 2021, and how can employers make them successful? We asked three local program leaders how they’re doing it now.
Finding new talent to support a global tech company
Christine Archer, the global head of SAP’s Internship Experience Program, said that like last year, SAP will be offering virtual internships in summer 2021. SAP prioritizes turning interns into full-time employees and has a goal of hiring at least 50% of its interns each year.
“As soon as we’re able to safely open offices back up, we’d love to be able to have interns back in the office,” she said of the international enterprise software company with its North American headquarters in Newtown Square. “If and when that becomes a reality, we’ll certainly make an adjustment. For now, our internships will still be virtual.”
Offering virtual internships has allowed SAP to reach students who might not have otherwise been located near an SAP office or been able to relocate to be near one (something we know is a trend in the hiring world, too). Internships as virtual experiences also reduces the pressure interns may feel amidst vaccine rollouts and changing COVID-19 guidelines to come work in person.
According to Archer, SAP employs more than 110,000 people worldwide and in a regular year hires nearly 4,000 interns, with 900 coming onboard stateside. As a forward-thinking tech company, she said SAP was already familiar with remote work models, so the pivot to remote work for employees was not as difficult for it. Still, doing internships virtually has presented a unique change of direction.
“We never used to do virtual internships,” she said. “We felt that ideally for someone to really learn, which is what an internship is for, we want them in the office. Seeing the inner workings of how a company operates [matters]. Virtual work isn’t new to us, but virtual internships were.”
Offering an impactful virtual experience without having interns succumb to Zoom fatigue has been a challenge, but Archer believes that some good has come out of the experience. Virtual internships have leveled the playing field in terms of access for interns from colleges and universities that are less represented. As a graduate of North Carolina’s Elon University, Archer said that she would not have been able to afford to live in Philadelphia as a student to pursue an internship, so she can relate to certain students’ needs.
“With COVID, we’ve realized that it really does make everything more equitable,” she said. “[Location] should be for no reason for people to cross us off the their list. Moving forward, if we fast forward to a world that somewhat resembles what life used to be, we will probably always offer virtual internships.”
When internships were pushed to the background for many companies in 2020, Kepler Group’s director of marketing analytics, Michael Kania, knew something had to be done to help students still looking for internships during the pandemic. He assembled the 2020 Philly Startup Sprint, a two-week virtual program designed to give college students a level of the experience that they would have received in an internship.
A year later, Kania plans on bringing it back for a second iteration after being impressed with how last year’s Sprint turned out.
“One of the things I learned from the programming was in the value that a virtual experience can provide,” he said. “I think companies are still struggling with that. We had 100 students in five continents over a two-week period and that only possible in a virtual environment.”
The Sprint helped prepare students for a professional future that will most likely involve remote and virtual work and professional environments. While Kania was proud of the impact the program had in its first year, he hopes that another edition could be featured during fall semesters or winter breaks to provide students with opportunities year round.
“I don’t think opportunities are limited only in the summer,” he said. “I would love for it to be available in the fall or winter break for students. There’s a constant need for professional development in the Philly area.”
Creating a career-agnostic program is a top priority for Kania, and this year’s iteration will feature different speakers, a different agenda and new training. Kania has a background in marketing and analytics and still wants the teachings to be relatable for a student who might want to be a graphic designer.
“This year, some of the training is a little more well-rounded to ensure people from all different backgrounds can learn,” he said.
Sharing new tools for success
To help employers lay the foundation for new internships, Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN) created the Virtual Internship Toolkit, a compendium of information that explains the core needs of internships and what employers can do to meet them.
Festo Okidi, the youth workforce development nonprofit’s director of partnerships for employment pathways, said he considers employers to be in a better place now than when the pandemic first hit in 2020. At that time, employers were still trying to understand how to keep their core businesses intact and support their existing employees remotely. Recruiting interns became less of a priority as employers navigated the tumult that came with the pandemic.
“The toolkit gives them a resources to think about, design and implement a summer or workplace program,” he said. “We want to put something in people’s hands to [show] it is possible to do this.”
For Okidi, setting up internships during the pandemic is not about simply coordinating Zoom or Microsoft Teams sessions. Employers need to understand how to educate young people on ways to use that technology to accomplish professional tasks, for instance. The remote work skills developed during the pandemic directly reflect the future of work — which will also involve employers recruiting talent outside of their geographic locations.
“You’re also opening up to new opportunities from a geographical standpoint,” he said, echoing Archer. “If we had employers in Conshohocken or Plymouth Meeting, a lot of times we’d have to say we couldn’t find a match. This opens it up.”
As for other benefits, Okidi said virtual internships can eliminate spatial concerns employers may face in bringing interns in to work at an office. And virtual internships allow professionals to practice their supervisory and communication skills in a new way — which is especially important when working with interns and other new or junior employees, who typically benefit more from in-person relationship building.
“You need to understand how will you work with a young person in the sense of you supervising staff,” he said. “Young people come with fresh ideas and can give you feedback.”
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.-30-