Companies have shifted during the coronavirus pandemic to allow their interns to work remotely. Leon Neal/Getty Images
COVID-19

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.

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