An intern program is not simply an altruistic means to provide potential new workers with the experience and connections they need to start their careers. It also creates a pipeline of new talent for companies, with both the interns and the companies that hire them benefitting substantially from the relationship.
Internships afford students the opportunity to hone their skills and gain strong knowledge about the career path they are studying to join. During an internship, interns also gain a chance to form bonds and relationships that will help set them up to be successful during their professional careers.
From the company perspective, interns provide labor and a fresh approach. Perhaps most importantly, interns eventually become the new workforce.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies don’t yet know how to adjust their intern programs amid a significant economic shutdown – many are reluctant to suspend their internship programs entirely. Students, too, are unsure how to react: Missing an internship opportunity altogether could cause them to lose out on vital career experiences; but moving forward with an in-person internship could put their health at risk.
RESEARCH INTO INTERNSHIP PROGRAM RESPONSE TO COVID-19
In light of these concerns, Sterling Lexicon commissioned a survey of 34 American and international companies to evaluate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their internship programs at the beginning of April 2020. Sterling Lexicon also conducted one-on-one interviews with internship program directors from two other companies. The findings of this research are summarized here.
On average, companies onboard approximately 75 interns each year, 60% of whom serve in a single season – usually summer. In this brief time, a company is faced with the difficult and complicated task of scouting, interviewing, onboarding, and training interns.
Most interns are well-rewarded for their work, a sign of how vital they are. Nearly 80% of the companies surveyed supported interns with salaries – sometimes as much as 80% of a full-time employee. One interviewee explained that a full-time engineer could earn upwards of $100,000, meaning a student intern could make almost $20,000 during a summer internship. More than 20% of companies offer housing options to their interns, while nearly 20% offer lump sums to support their interns and nearly 30% offer to cover travel expenses. Less than 1 in 10 offered no support of any kind.
Nearly two-thirds of companies surveyed experienced a slight shrinkage of the program due to COVID-19. Fortunately, fewer than 1 in 10 have cancelled their internship programs entirely; most, in fact, said they would consider this option only as a last resort. Many employers have implemented remote internships, and others have shortened the length of their internship programs. While these options can work effectively for many office roles, on-site internships have still been negatively impacted – affecting interns who require specific equipment or buildings to perform their duties. It would be expected that while some training opportunities might be missed, the connections made and the entries on a resume would mitigate that loss. For example, a drilling inspection intern would require direct access to drilling equipment – access that would be denied in a remote internship.
The primary benefit companies enjoy from an internship program is how they serve as a pipeline for new talent. More than 85% of companies surveyed identified their internship program as a source for future talent. More than half said interns fill resource gaps.
Most companies (61%) say they would suffer a talent pool shortage if their internship programs were cancelled outright, whereas only 27% say their business continuity would be impacted.
Strong internship programs greatly increase the employability of each intern. Even if they are not taken on as team members, interns will take their valuable experience into the marketplace and facilitate overall growth.
High unemployment will delay graduates’ entries into full-time careers and necessitates career change and retraining among workers who were full-time employees prior to the pandemic crisis. While most internship programs focus on college students, there may be room in internship programs to consider workers looking for retraining. Internships also raise a company’s profile in regard to corporate social responsibility (CSR), which also attracts new talent.
A NEW PARADIGM: REMOTE WORK
Will remote work become the new standard?
The majority of companies surveyed have instituted remote work programs for their interns. Many have also done the same for regular full-time employees. The distancing caused by the pandemic has served as an impromptu experiment for the widespread adoption of a remote work paradigm, and it is likely that some version of remote work will become commonplace, regardless of how quickly the country returns to normal.
Fortunately, if remote work does become the new normal, tools and techniques exist for an easy transition.
Many interns grew up with sophisticated technology and are already fluent in these tools –, online chat platforms, video conferencing, cloud storage, collaboration platforms, and more. But beyond the technology itself, companies can implement policies that streamline remote work. Flexible scheduling, where a fixed 9-to-5 schedule is eschewed in favor of allowing some employees to work 8 hours a day at the times of their choosing, empowers remote workers to optimize their schedules around the most productive times of their day. A compressed workweek, in which a worker’s 40-hour week is achieved in less than five 8-hour days, is another option that allows workers to meet their personal responsibilities without requiring extra time off.
For these workers, the budget for an internship program will change. Less will need to be allocated for travel and housing, and these funds can be reallocated in a variety of ways. At the very least, they can be fed back into the internship budget to ensure its long-term viability – but perhaps a better option would be to expand the program to make it more appetizing for high-quality interns. Using the resources saved from reduced travel and housing expenses in order to increase internship salaries or expand training within the internship are two methods that can attract and retain talented interns
Remote work, unfortunately, is not a solution for all internships. Some professions require on-site presence for such team members as engineers, repair technicians, specialized equipment operators, and supervisors who cannot perform their work remotely.
What can we do now? What should we do the next time something like this happens?
Crises are unavoidable, yet it is easy to ignore the necessity of preparation during times of comfort and plenty. Even if the pandemic caught a company and its internship program by surprise, it is not too late to form a plan of action for exiting the crisis and being well-prepared for the next.
Begin by cultivating and maintaining a proper crisis response team. Crises can take any form, so making plans that are too specific can still leave your internship programs inadequately prepared when the next crisis strikes. Having a crisis response team can mitigate this damage by having trained personnel ready to act when needed, with the authority to quickly implement significant changes.
If a company hasn’t been keeping an adequate record of its response to the crisis, it’s time to start doing so now. Having a record of what happened during a crisis – what steps were taken, what steps were not taken, and the result of those decisions – can better inform your team during the next one and can form the framework for an effective response plan moving forward.
To maintain the viability and value of an intern program, begin planning your exit strategy from the pandemic crisis by asking yourself the following questions:
- Will you be able to expect a similar intern program budget as what existed prior to the pandemic? If not, what must change?
- Intern candidates may be hesitant to take on an internship if they believe doing so would put their health at risk. Has your company increased health care coverage for interns? Has your company instituted new policies to ensure the safety of its personnel?
- Will your internship program require an awareness campaign to attract the number of interns needed for normal operations?
- Will remote work become more common in future internships? What training programs would such an increase in remote work require?
- What will your exit strategy look like if the pandemic ends by the end of 2020? Will it look different from one in which the crisis continues until 2021, or even 2022?
Through years and decades of experience, companies have learned the value of interns, both to their current operations and to their industry’s future. The COVID-19 pandemic of early 2020 has disrupted a tried-and-true model, in some cases, even bringing internships to a halt entirely. However, most businesses have adapted accordingly, finding solutions that incorporate social distancing while still maintaining a constant flow of new talent. How they address the challenges of change will determine the future of this important tool for years to come and set the standard for new innovation when it comes to training interns.