Summer internship canceled? Not at these companies embracing virtual versions


By Michael Braga, USA TODAY

There won’t be any college kids on Humana’s five main corporate campuses around the country this summer. COVID-19 has seen to that.

But that doesn’t mean executives and staff at the Louisville, Kentucky-based insurance giant won’t be interacting with interns as they have every year since 1998. They’ll just be doing it in a virtual environment instead of a physical one.

So far, 200 graduate and undergraduate students have signed up for a summer of online courses, long-distance social networking and remote teamwork. But the company is still looking for more. It has space for candidates who might be interested in learning about corporate strategy, marketing, health care delivery, analytics and operations.

 “We are very well experienced at working from home. We’ve done it before. We did it before COVID-19,” said Ty Richardson, who heads enterprise Talent Management for Humana. “We’re very confident we can provide a meaningful experience. We have a plan that can be clearly articulated to interns so they are well equipped to understand the tasks and outcomes they are responsible for at the end of the summer.”

While more than 200 companies, according to a search through Github and ismyinternshipcancelled,com, have given up on internships this summer in the face of a rapidly spreading pandemic, others in a range of industries are forging ahead with a virtual version of programs deemed crucial to their recruiting efforts and future growth.

“Ten weeks is an ideal time for college students and companies to assess mutual compatibility,” said Jeffrey Moss, CEO and founder of Parker Dewey, a Chicago company focused on finding internships for college students. “The company is able to assess the student beyond what is captured on the resume, and the student has an opportunity to audition the company.”

Tech titans Google, Twitter, IBM, Microsoft and SAP are all planning virtual internships this summer as are financial powerhouses Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.

Insurance companies are also on board. AIG, Liberty Mutual and Northwestern Mutual all have shifted to virtual internships for 2020.

"Some companies had a little experience with remote work before this summer, but for the most part there isn’t an established set of best practices," Joshua Kahn, assistant director of research and public policy at the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a nonprofit professional membership organization for college career services based in Bethlehem, Penn." Most companies are just now experiencing how to do it."

Things have to be done a little bit differently in the virtual world, Kahn said. There has to be more of an emphasis on short-term projects and shorter, more frequent check-ins. Mentors might also need to play more significant roles.

“It’s going to be tough for some companies,” said Matthew Hora, director of the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin. “Converting to working remote requires quite a bit of forethought as to how to design meaningful tasks and how to supervise them in a productive way.”

But plenty of companies are confident that they have the experience and skills to pull it off.

“Over the past few years, Liberty Mutual’s program already offered virtual internships to a handful of interns who worked from some of our smaller offices,” said Maura Quinn, Liberty Mutual’s manager of campus recruiting in an email. “We took that model and scaled it up this year for all of our interns.”

This summer, 600 Liberty Mutual interns – undergraduates, graduates, MBA, law students and Ph.D.s – will work remotely in the company’s finance, information technology (IT), claims, legal and sales departments.

“The curriculum will complement interns’ majors as well as their Liberty Mutual assignments and include a mix of professional development, insurance-related instruction, and career-pathing certificate courses,” Quinn said.


Developing emotional intelligence

Humana's internship program, which begins in May and runs until early August, will include training in virtual classrooms where students learn the basics of health care. Classes will also help students develop both their intellectual and emotional intelligence and their ability to work with others. There even will be a virtual volunteering component, where interns will partner with the Humana Foundation.

“It’s an opportunity for us to build a talent pipeline,” said Richardson, the company's enterprise talent manager. “We do expect some of our interns to become employees and we want to give them a running start at that.”

Microsoft’s summer internship will be no less ambitious.

“This year, more than 4,000 students had plans to join us — the largest and most diverse class in our history — taking on roles spanning all our functions,” wrote Kathleen Hogan, Microsoft’s chief people officer in a recent blog post. “And while we’re incredibly disappointed that we won’t be with them on our campuses, we’re committed to creating a meaningful and fun virtual internship experience for each one of them, and remain eager to absorb their energy and learn from them as we always do.”

Hogan added that her team will host “remote events that focus on building connections, fostering learning, and empowering interns to achieve their goals and uncover their passions. Participants in the program will connect with one another, build community within their teams, and engage with senior leaders across the company through a variety of virtual events.”


Focusing on micro internships

Moss, whose company pioneered the concept of micro internships – project-based internships in which college students can earn money and valuable skills over short periods of time, said there is a cost to pay when companies abandon internship programs, even just for a summer.

Some companies like airlines and destination resorts like Disney can’t help it. COVID-19 either decimated their businesses or there was no way for them to operate remotely, Moss said. The same is true for labs and manufacturing facilities.

In contrast, managers at financial services companies that have previously balked at remote work have recognized the opportunity to create positive experiences for their interns. They, along with so many other companies also see the risk associated with not responding.

“Those companies are recognizing the long-term implications of their decision to cancel internships and they’re not pretty,” Moss said. “Certain campuses may not look at them as fondly in future.”

But it’s still not too late to walk back their decisions and provide a soft landing for students, Moss said. He said he’s working with a medical device company that’s changed its mind as is now offering interns a series of micro-projects, which is better than nothing.

That’s the way virtual internships should be organized anyway, he said. Instead of one large project, interns can get involved in a variety of well-defined and discreet tasks, often in different divisions of a company. Even though they might be assigned to marketing, they might see an opportunity in sales, which is a lot like what happens when students are onsite for the summer. 

Zachary Kahtava, who is graduating from the University of Kansas on May 15, is already an old pro when it comes to micro internships. He's done 12 of them with Parker Dewey since the summer of his Sophomore year.

A business finance major with a concentration in data analytics, Kahtava has been able to partially fund his college education through short term internships where he's done everything from generating leads to analyzing date

"The really cool thing is that I don't get treated like a student," Kahtava said. "The companies are open to my opinions and thoughts. They want to know what I think they should do with the projects."


The downside to virtual internships

Kahtava said his most recent internship with a trucking company -- building a database to capture capital and operating expenses and other data assignments  -- got extended in February.

While the pandemic forced him to take his computer home, the most significant change was his ability to communicate with his bosses. Whereas he previously got to meet with them once a week, they were now so busy dealing with COVID-19 issues that they could only meet with him once a month

"We've been lucky not to have been hit too hard," Kahtava said. "But with everything being variable every day, it's harder for us to get together. Because we can't meet, it's harder to get insight from them. "

Summer interns are likely to have different issues.

Because interns are not onsite, it will be hard fro them to develop soft skills, the 21st century skills that you get from teamwork and oral communication, said Hora, director of Wisconsin's Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions.

"To really learn those, it requires immersion in the social environment," he said. "Nurses and mechanical engineers need to immersed in the hospital and on the oil rig to really understand the job, to really learn to problem solve on the fly."

It's the same when it comes to truly understanding the culture of a workplace, said Kahn, the assistant director of research and public policy at the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

"One of most important things for interns is the culture of the place and if they feel they can fit in with that culture," Kahn said. "You can’t get that feeling online."

See more at: USA TODAY

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