Welcome, virtual interns!

Tips on filling your talent pipeline in the age of social distance

  • Up to 75% of companies offering summer internships this year are expected to cancel them
  • Virtual intern programs are a viable alternative for many organizations
  • These programs work best for companies that can provide the support virtual interns need

Every spring, thousands of college students wait to hear about internships they’ve lined up for the summer. This year, however, as companies navigate major challenges brought on by a global pandemic, many are on the fence about whether—or how—to manage virtual internship programs.

ServiceNow, the publisher of Workflow, announced that its entire 2020 intern class would work remotely this summer. “We can do digital internships because we are a digital workflow company,” said chief talent officer Pat Wadors. “We’re putting the power of our own Now Platform to work to create an amazing digital experience for our interns, to keep their productivity up, and to make them feel like part of our team.”

Students hoping to intern at other companies this summer may not be so lucky. As of April 17, 16% of companies had rescinded their internship offers, according to a National Association of Colleges and Employers poll, and that number is on the rise. (There’s even a real-time tracker.)

Thirty-eight percent of college students tracked by Handshake, a website that pairs students with companies, say their internships are off. Half the 200 students polled by InternQueen say the same, says founder Lauren Berger. Ultimately, she expects 75% of U.S. companies to cancel their 2020 programs.

“This is a really difficult time,” says Moira Kolasinski, associate director for employer connections at Santa Clara University. “I have great empathy for the students that were looking forward to these internships, and for the talent recruiters that care deeply about them.”

Many have good reasons to do so, obviously. Some companies have more urgent priorities during the crisis, while others offer internships that don’t translate well to a virtual experience. “Companies should take into account whether or not it is realistic for managers to provide a positive experience,” says Kolasinski.

If maintaining a remote program is feasible, companies should follow through to help keep their talent pipelines from running dry. Given the chance, 84% of college students say they would participate in a remote internship, according to Handshake. “Everything you can do to keep your internship going, you should do,” says Wahab Owolabi, founder of URx, which holds conferences for recruiters focused on serving minority and under-served communities.

The challenge, of course, is how to create a virtual internship that still offers a positive, meaningful experience for students, and allows companies to keep their recruiting strategies alive during tough times. Here are some guidelines and emerging best practices that experts recommend.

Go big, or go micro

One rule of thumb for employers is to avoid trying to virtualize the in-person experience. It’s important, of course, to have some initial video calls to connect interns with each other and employees. But loading students up with, say, Zoom cocktail parties can backfire if they feel like they’re mandatory activities.

Rather, leave room for inventiveness. Microsoft, for example, is developing a virtual experience for 4,000 interns this summer, its largest group ever. As part of the experience, interns are urged to “co-create their summer experience” by hosting TED-style talks or launching volunteer projects, according to chief people officer Kathleen Hogan, who explained some of the details in a recent blog post.

Another option is the micro-internship, a concept pioneered by Jeffrey Moss, CEO of Parker Dewey, an online service that connects college students and recent graduates with short-term remote assignments. Rather than a full-time, 10-week summer program, micro-internships involve assigning specific projects, such as cleaning up a customer database or preparing marketing materials for a product launch. Typically, these are jobs that take from 5 to 40 hours to complete.

The idea is to match managers who might otherwise hire a contractor with an ambitious student “who is probably going to do a better job anyway,” says Moss. For employers, there’s less mentoring, housing, and other program costs. Managers can get valuable work done and identify possible full-time hires.

For students, micro internships offer advantages over a conventional experience. Rather than work in marketing for one company all summer, they can try a variety of projects at different companies at any time of the year. Parker Dewey pays students around $20 per hour. “It’s not a replacement for the full 10-week experience, but it’s something,” says Moss.

Case in point: Zachary Kahtava, a senior at the University of Kansas, who has completed 14 micro-internships through Parker Dewey since he switched majors during his freshman year from music education to finance. Projects ranged from scouring the web for sales leads to doing market research on sports betting for a venture capital firm.

The contacts Kahtava made led to a dozen better-paying freelance projects, further padding a resume that helped him land a summer internship after his junior year. After he graduates this summer, Kahtava will start a $60,000-plus, full-time job as a business intelligence associate. “I’m truly thrilled with where I am,” he says. “Micro-internships paved the way for me to find my niche.”

Whether companies settle on micro-internships or a full-blown virtual program, here are some other guidelines companies should follow:

  • Emphasize the most meaningful human interactions. Interns covet face time and rigorous feedback from people they respect. Each of SurveyMonkey’s 42 remote interns this summer will have weekly one-on-ones with both their manager and a mentor.
  • Rethink requirements and logistics. Going remote requires adjustments from multiple departments, says Owolabi. If you have foreign students, for example, your legal team will need to get them to sign new offer letters showing they will be employed in their country of origin. IT needs to make sure students receive secure laptops and have the necessary Wi-Fi. For interns joining engineering teams, managers need to work out how to conduct daily stand-ups and code reviews.
  • Provide clear daily structure. Managers should break down projects into discrete, actionable tasks. Project management and communication tools—such as Asana or Slack—can help interns stay on track. Berger also suggests companies keep structured and consistent hours.
  • Pay interns full freight. Coveted internships in Silicon Valley often pay up to $8,000, which some students need to pay next year’s tuition. Pay all or a portion of that stipend, if possible. If your company can’t afford this, it’s a good sign that you should probably cancel your 2020 program, says Owolabi. Many intern offers include housing stipends. Companies should ask interns if they need these funds to pay for alternate housing. If not, employers should use these funds to help other students who do.
  • Tap into this year’s deeper talent pool. Right now there’s a glut of talented students looking for opportunities. Online resources are popping up to help you find them, such as “Intern From Home” and “Is My Internship Cancelled.” Take advantage.
  • Over-communicate, then do it again. Students will appreciate knowing as soon as possible if they need to make other plans for the summer, or to adjust to changes in the program. They won’t appreciate the opposite. “It’s a branding issue,” says Owolabi. “Two years from now, students will remember how you treated people this summer.”

Linda Shockley, managing director of the Dow Jones News Fund, dreaded having to tell some of this year’s aspiring journalists that their internships had been canceled for the first time in the program’s 60-year history.

While the interns will still get two weeks of classes, memberships in journalism professional societies, and a $1,500 scholarship, she couldn’t guarantee they’d find a new internship. “The first one I called said they were thrilled” to hear they were getting anything, Shockley says. “Here I’m feeling awful, and she said she felt blessed.”