Internships in a COVID-19 World

June 2, 2020

With the world fighting to overcome the effects of COVID-19 and the significant job loss that has followed, employers everywhere are evaluating how their hiring efforts will be impacted. In addition to the effect on essential hiring, the pandemic has put a stop to most nonessential hiring, including internships. Many spring internships have ended abruptly, and employers are now faced with decisions surrounding the upcoming summer internships. Most employers are taking the approach of delaying internship opportunities and assessing the situation as it develops. However, a survey recently conducted by Handshake reported that 30% of juniors and seniors have had their internship offers rescinded (Clarey, 2020. para. 6). For many students, these internships are an opportunity to gain valuable, hands-on job experience. If students are unable to gain experience through internships, it is uncertain how that knowledge will be supplemented.

Before canceling any upcoming internships, employers need to think about the long-term impact it may have on their organization. Many employers rely on internships to create a talent pool for the future and cannot afford to eliminate their internship program. In a recent survey conducted in March, approximately 84% of students said they would participate in a remote internship (Clarey, 2020. para. 11). For this reason, employers are getting creative and assessing their resources to determine if they have the capability to offer remote internships.

How to have a successful remote internship program

Although the internship landscape looks different these days, the opportunity still exists for students to learn and make a positive contribution to the organization. The concepts that apply to an in-office internship may still apply to a virtual one. Employers should do their best to create a learning environment that encourages interns to ask questions. Although managers will not be physically present, they will be available by phone, email, and even videoconferencing. Instant messaging may be a useful resource, as it allows supervisors to provide quicker responses to questions in a more relaxed format, without having to compose a formal email. If the organization plans to hire multiple interns, it may be good to have a dedicated manager for the internship program. In addition, holding a virtual orientation session may be beneficial so that students and managers can start out on the same page.

Prior to hiring remote interns, employers must develop a clearly defined job description that will provide direction and outline expectations to ensure the success of the interns. Interns should be assigned projects and work that is challenging, valuable, and related to their major. Developing short and long-term projects is key to keeping the intern engaged. Lack of work can lead to a lack of engagement and may result in interns surfing the internet or checking social media, especially while working in a remote environment. A job description is an important aspect of a typical internship, and especially so in a virtual environment. It will provide managers with an outline for addressing performance.

As is true for any position within an organization, it will be essential for managers to schedule regular meetings and performance reviews with remote interns to ensure they are staying on track and meeting expectations, just like an in-office intern would be expected to do. During the reviews, managers should include compliments along with constructive feedback. Showing appreciation for the work that interns perform can improve productivity and morale.

While boosting morale in a virtual environment can be more challenging than within an in-office environment, providing opportunities for students to participate in social gatherings is a great way to make them feel like a valuable part of the team. Employers may consider creating a Zoom meeting and inviting employees and interns to join and have lunch together. Maybe even hosting a virtual game of bingo to create some social interaction. There is plenty of opportunity to get creative.

Paid or unpaid internships?

It is important not to forget the legal considerations in providing an internship. Employers must determine whether an internship will be paid or unpaid. Most for-profit organizations will pay interns a fair wage to avoid ending up in an expensive lawsuit. However, the Fair Labor Standards Act outlines certain criteria that qualify an internship as being unpaid:

  1. The employer clearly communicates that the intern will not receive any compensation.
  2. The internship provides training similar to what is provided in an educational environment and includes hands-on training.
  3. The internship ties to the intern’s educational coursework or the intern receives academic credit.
  4. The internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The internship has a set time frame and lasts until the intern stops receiving beneficial learning.
  6. The intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

It is important to note that state laws and local ordinances may have their own requirements and should be consulted as well before establishing an unpaid internship.

At the end of an internship, employers should conduct an exit interview to gather feedback on the program and the intern’s experience. The hope is that students will leave with a lot of goodwill toward the organization, even if they do not return to the organization for a full-time position.

During this unique time, students will undoubtedly appreciate the opportunity to gain the valuable experience needed to secure a job once the pandemic subsides and the market rebounds. With the proper resources and dedication, employers can offer a successful remote internship that is an educational, interesting, and rewarding experience.