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Companies have shifted during the coronavirus pandemic to allow their interns to work remotely. Leon Neal/Getty Images

As internships move online, will opportunities follow?

Sabri Ben-Achour Jun 15, 2020
Heard on:
Companies have shifted during the coronavirus pandemic to allow their interns to work remotely. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Among the rites of passage for college students that have been altered by the COVID-19 pandemic are internships. Just like classes and graduation ceremonies, those too have moved online.

But there is an upside to being a virtual intern.

“There will be no photocopying or data entry, actually,” said Maggie Gage, head of public policy at MetLife. Her department decided to go ahead with its internship program virtually and plans on including interns in pretty much everything — online meetings, briefings, check-ins. 

“Given how quickly our teams seemed to adjust to living in a virtual world and working from home, we should be able to do the same for our internships,” she said.

A number of companies have canceled their internships altogether this year. The National Association of Colleges and Employers surveyed its members and found that about 20% of them were canceling internship programs, and about 46% of the remainder were shifting their internships online. 

Interning through Zoom is just not the same, though.

“Part of the trouble is you don’t really get as much networking benefits of these internships, so that was definitely one of my apprehensions,” said Nidhi Krishnan, a rising sophomore at Washington University in St Louis.

Krishnan’s original internship was canceled, but she found not one but two virtual internships instead — both in St. Louis, one with the ACLU and the other with St. Louis’ chamber of commerce. She said they’re working out fine; they’re giving her a lot of work, and there are daily check-ins.

“They’re providing really good experiences to their interns,” she said.

That is in part because for a lot of organizations these days, internships mean something very different than they did even a few years ago.

“In our studies five, six, seven years ago, the No. 1 reason employers hosted interns was to get work done at a low cost, and now that’s completely shifted to identifying future talent,” said Robert Shindell, president of research and consulting firm Intern Bridge.

That’s the case for the Real Estate Board of New York, which is still offering a paid internship this summer in partnership with the City University of New York.  

“The biggest goal of this internship from the industry perspective is to have a pipeline and a future workforce,” said Mariya Lyubman, senior vice president of human resources there.

And if internships can be done from halfway across the country now, that pipeline may be getting more inclusive, Shindell said. “This levels the playing field like crazy. I think it democratizes the internship experience.”

Isabella Varney, a rising senior at Emerson College in Boston, was disappointed when her internship in Boston was canceled, but she was able to get a remote internship with a production company in Los Angeles.

“In a way, it kind of worked out well for me because I wouldn’t have been able to go out to LA and afford an apartment and be able to do an unpaid internship, so it’s nice I can do it from Boston.”

But while remote internships can lower physical and some financial barriers for interns, they may throw up others — you need a good internet connection and a decent computer to intern remotely. These issues may persist; some companies are considering making remote internships a normal part of work life moving forward.  

Correction (June 16, 2020): A previous version of this story misstated Nidhi Krishnan’s class year at Washington University in St Louis. The text has been corrected.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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