One year in, lessons from the virtual internship

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One year ago this month, many college students were making plans to come to Washington, D.C. (and other major metropolitan areas) for an early-career rite of passage: the summer internship. The global COVID-19 pandemic, which caused worldwide shutdowns in mid-March 2020, put a brake on these plans and nearly every facet of daily life. When the “office” suddenly became the basement, bedroom or kitchen table, the idea of hosting an intern seemed like an impossibility. 

At that time, there was a great deal of concern over the future of the internship. In many cases, companies dramatically scaled back their internship programs, or eliminated them, in response to the pandemic. Many college seniors, expecting to land an internship and then follow a smooth path into a post-graduation job, had to adjust their plans and expectations. A year in, what have we learned about the future of internships and the prospects for young people in the workforce?

My organization, The Fund for American Studies, has been placing students in D.C. internships since 1970. After the pandemic came to the U.S., we pivoted to place more than 200 students in virtual internships during our summer 2020 program, with more last fall and this spring. While there have been many challenges, it turns out that the COVID-19 experience has been a time of creativity and resilience for many interns and employers alike. Ultimately, there are significant reasons for optimism about the continued potential for the internship to serve as a critical bridge between college and the workforce for America’s young people.

In one positive development, the virtual internship opened up new opportunities for interns to participate in more relevant work related to their chosen fields. Pre-COVID, an intern on Capitol Hill spent a fair amount of time giving tours to visitors, answering phones, opening mail or making coffee runs. Since much of this “grunt” work wasn’t able to happen in a virtual environment, many Hill interns were given more opportunities to do research, attend virtual hearings and monitor House and Senate proceedings on C-SPAN. As a result, internships in the wake of COVID-19 became more meaningful and provided a more accurate glimpse of what a career in that field would entail. 

Another potential benefit of the shift to virtual internships is that it can dramatically increase access for those who otherwise may not have had the opportunity. By going virtual, it was no longer a requirement for an intern to visit the office every day — meaning they no longer had to live in the city where the internship was physically based. This led to a predictable increase in the number of interns who applied to positions last year. One international study showed there were 35 percent more internship applications in 2020 than in the previous year, but also a similar percentage jump (31 percent) in the number of internship opportunities made available. This means that those who previously wouldn’t have had the connections or financial flexibility for an in-person internship suddenly had a world of opportunities opened to them, in different states or even across the country.

The most exciting model from the COVID-19 experience may be the “hybrid” approach, mixing the elements of a 100 percent traditional internship with a more remote-based arrangement. Our organization is currently hosting 14 students in D.C., who are living on Capitol Hill and interning at various organizations both in person and virtually. Some of their internships are hybrid in nature: one or two days in the office and one or two days working from home. These students have appreciated that they get the essence of a “normal” internship experience. With companies now exploring how to accommodate a combination of in-person and virtual work once the pandemic subsides, this experience will provide interns with excellent preparation for the modern workforce. 

Many have questioned what the workplace will look like in a post-pandemic world. No doubt many employers will realize that the big office building downtown is unnecessary, and that having their employees work from home makes sense economically. Yet, after a year of virtual communication, employers and employees also seem to appreciate that you simply cannot replace normal face-to-face interaction. We are social beings in nature, and nothing can take the place of looking someone in the eye, giving a firm handshake, or having a freewheeling discussion around the water cooler. It’s clear, however, that even when things return to “normal,” a virtual internship can be a realistic option for students and employers alike.

Joseph Starrs is the U.S. programs director at The Fund for American Studies, a nonprofit educational organization that promotes the principles of limited government, free-market economics and honorable leadership. It has sponsored academic internship programs for college students since 1970.

Tags COVID-19 pandemic Internship Virtual internship Work

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