How can employers improve from last year so Gen Z can see it?

Originally published by Roy Maurer for Society for Human Resource Management in July 2021

After last summer’s abrupt switch to virtual internships, employers are planning new experiences to keep this key source of talent development working.

Most college students missed out on traditional internships in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many employers canceled their programs; among employers that held internships last summer, approximately 72 percent did so virtually, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).  

Internships have bounced back this year. “There has been a 6,000 percent increase in internship postings this year compared with last year,” said Rebekah Paré, associate dean at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and executive director of SuccessWorks, a professional development center at the school. “The numbers are still below pre-pandemic levels, but there have been significant opportunities in technology, health care, research and K-12 education.”

Paré said most of the internships are still virtual, but there’s been a larger mix of in-person and hybrid programs than in 2020. According to NACE, 43 percent of employers’ plans for 2021 include hybrid programs, 38 percent are exclusively virtual and 13 percent are in person.

“Students have been very excited about the return of in-person programs, and if they have a choice, in-person is their first choice,” Paré said.

NACE data shows that students who held virtual internships typically found that the quality of the networking and interactions suffered, though work performance was largely consistent between in-person and virtual experiences.

“Students are suffering through Zoom fatigue; they’re tired of being on video all the time,” Paré said.

While remote internships may be disappointing to some, they’re newfound opportunities for those who may not have had the resources to relocate.

“Virtual internships created access that both students and employers did not have before,” Paré said. “Students applied for internships knowing that they could not have applied to those before because of logistical reasons. And employers were able to expand their talent pool and diversify their teams for that same reason.”

Success Stories

Both Adobe and Walmart are welcoming their largest intern classes to date for a second year of virtual internships.

Amy Goldfinger, Walmart’s senior vice president for global talent, said the company’s quick pivot to virtual internships in 2020 was a big success. “Last year’s interns said they had a great experience and they would recommend the internship to others,” she said. “A lot of organizational preparation and lead time goes into making the programs a success, so we committed early to once again offer the programs virtually.”

Walmart is offering approximately 700 interns 11-week programs this summer. The virtual internships cover all corporate functions, while interns in supply chain roles learn and work onsite in distribution and fulfillment centers.

On average—including during the pandemic last year—about 70 percent to 80 percent of interns either receive another internship or a full-time employment offer, Goldfinger said.

The biggest lesson learned is that “there is no such thing as too much communication,” she said. “We carried the structure and curriculum from last year forward this summer, but we doubled down on communication and focused on connection—connection to the business and to one another.”

The internship program team began hosting Q&A sessions with students before the programs started, Goldfinger said. “We wanted everyone to be prepped and ready to go before their day one, based on what we learned last year. The interns were placed into cohort groups of seven to 10 people to navigate their career goals and were aligned with peer mentors who guided them throughout the internship,” she said. “And we paired each intern with a dedicated manager and provided access to Walmart and Sam’s Club executives.”

While Walmart makes time for fun and team engagement, “the true core of an intern’s program revolves around an impactful project with their interests and skills in mind,” Goldfinger said. “Interns are working with stores, implementing new technologies, enhancing the membership experience and helping to enhance early-career recruiting.”

Providing real, meaningful work that interns can be proud of is also a hallmark of successful internships at Adobe, according to Mark Lipscomb, Adobe’s vice president, global talent and employee experience.

Adobe’s internship programs grew last year as the company extended offers to students who lost internships due to the pandemic. “Last year, we were bullish to keep the internship programs. We’re a digital experience company, after all, and we knew we could pull it off,” he said. “This year, given the uncertainty of the health crisis, we decided to keep it virtual.”

Just over 1,000 students from 300 universities and colleges will participate in Adobe’s 12-week fully virtual programs this summer. “The internships cover roles across the business, from product and engineering to human resources and marketing,” Lipscomb said. “Every team wants an intern, primarily because it’s such an important recruiting funnel for us. We had to cap our internships because there is such a high demand.”

Adobe succeeded in converting more than 60 percent of its interns into full-time employees last year, a big focus for Lipscomb and his team. “One of the primary drivers of the internship programs is bringing these students on full time,” he said. “I realize that the internship experience itself is important, but providing that career opportunity upon graduation is hugely impactful.”

Adobe has been able to cultivate a successful virtual internship program by focusing on meaningful work (the interns contribute to over 30 percent of the company’s patent filings each year), partnering interns with mentors and ensuring that the overall experience is fun.   

“One of the most important lessons learned from last year is the importance of community,” Lipscomb said. “We make sure that there are plenty of opportunities for the students to connect with each other, not just their managers. Those relationships are key. We do as much as we can to foster those relationships across multiple communication channels, even more so now that the programs are virtual.”

Quick Tips for Managing Virtual Internship Programs

“Students who were successful with virtual internships had a few things in common,” Paré said. “They had a lot of scheduled check-ins with their supervisor, and they also had access to a group chat with their team members and other opportunities to feel part of the team.” The following are a few basic tips for running successful remote internship programs.

  • Set clear expectations. A successful internship will have specific learning goals and outcomes, Paré said. The remote environment requires that those be much more strongly articulated up front.
  • Invite frequent communication. Managers and teammates alike should provide interns with constructive and motivational feedback on their work.
  • Encourage relationship building. Make interns feel like they are an important part of the team and help them bond with colleagues through team-building activities.
  • Assign mentors. A good mentor is essential for helping interns grow their knowledge and skills, especially when working remotely. Paré said she’s worried that interns without mentors will have to do a lot of proactive outreach on their own, “a tall order to ask for in a remote environment where they don’t understand the culture.”
  • Perfect onboarding. This is a great opportunity to evaluate and identify the gaps in your remote onboarding process.

The Future Is Uncertain

Neither Adobe nor Walmart is sure what their internships will look like next year. Goldfinger believes that Walmart will reinstitute an in-person experience when it’s safe to do so, but the company has not yet decided whether virtual internships will be continued as well.

Lipscomb said Adobe may adopt a hybrid virtual/in-person approach, similar to what it is doing with its general workforce. He agreed that the in-person interactions of traditional internships are truly valuable. He also misses the energy the interns bring to the office.  

“I understand students preferring an in-person experience,” he said. “If I were in their shoes, I would want that, too. The onsite social interactions are irreplaceable. But the user scores for our virtual internships went up year over year last summer. We must have done something right.”

By contributor
contributor Profile Picture