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Some Companies Are Making Virtual Internships Work During COVID-19

Updated: Jul 9

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Internships have always been more than just summer jobs at Abbott, a global health technology  company based in Chicago. Their 12-week programs typically include career development sessions, "deep business learning," network building and challenging, real-life assignments, said Vildan Kehr, Abbott's divisional vice president of global talent acquisition.

"Programs offered to high school and college students can change the trajectories of their professional lives," she said. That's why canceling the programs was not an option, even when "it became clear that the threat from the coronavirus would make moving interns across the country for in-person programming difficult, if not impossible."

Internships are not just important for students; the programs are a key channel into the company's talent pipeline. Every year, more than 60 percent of the interns at Abbott become employees. The decision was made to move ahead with the programs. Now the question was: How could the company provide 170 college students with an engaging, meaningful internship experience remotely?


Year of Disruption

Not surprisingly, most college students are missing out on traditional internships this year due to COVID-19. About 22 percent of employers said they were canceling internships entirely, with another 19 percent undecided as of May 1, according to the latest polling from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Employer responses showed that most (83 percent) modified their summer internship programs—instead of eliminating them—by making them virtual, shortening them or both.

"We've seen significant changes for our students this year," said Rebekah Paré, associate dean at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and executive director of SuccessWorks, a professional development center at the school. "A lot of employers felt terrible to cancel programs but felt they couldn't support them. Another scenario—postponing programs, sometimes more than once before canceling them—put students in a worse bind because they may have tried to find another opportunity. About half of our students kept their internships, which were mostly made virtual."

Employers like Abbott, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Microsoft and ServiceNow transitioned to a virtual experience, in many cases for the first time. Some organizations took a hybrid virtual/in-person approach. Half of the approximately 2,800 interns hired by global aerospace and defense firm Northrop Grumman this summer are working onsite in roles requiring clearance or deemed essential, said Peter Brooks, vice president of talent acquisition at the company. The other half, spread across a variety of business functions, started virtual programs.

As companies adjusted their summer internships to meet the new reality, HR and front-line managers took on the challenge of how to remotely incorporate students into the organization's culture.

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