The COVID-19 Internship

How this summer’s more than 1.5 million interns are the canaries in the new remote-working corporate world.

It has become a summer rite of passage for nearly 1.5 million US students: working in an office of a big company during the summer between their junior and senior years of college. Aspiring engineers, salespeople, financial analysts, and others look forward to getting away from home, learning about work culture, and drawing a real-world paycheck.

But much like everything else these days, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted those plans. As the college school year draws to a close, 12% of companies have canceled their internship programs outright, according to a new data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers and Ripplematch, an internship placement service. Of the ones that will continue, nearly half, 46%, have converted their on-site internship programs into remote ones, while 14% are either shortening or delaying their programs. And 24% haven’t decided, or at least haven’t communicated to students, what is happening to the summer programs. The figures are similar in Europe as well.

The rapidly changing plans are testing both employers and interns alike, since many organizations give interns strategic work projects. “They still have a ton of work to get done that summer,” says Ally Van Deuren, Korn Ferry’s university relations lead for North America.

This year’s interns are the first major group to enter the rapidly changing work world the coronavirus has created; most fresh-out-of-college hires don’t actually start until September. The programs the interns will be entering over the next couple of weeks most likely will look nothing like what they signed up for back in late 2019 or earlier this year.

Companies committed to their programs are working out the logistics of remote work. Some are shipping interns technology hardware and other essentials, while others are setting up students with software on their own personal computers. At the same time, organizations are setting up background checks, immigration forms, and drug screenings remotely, Van Deuren says.

But the bigger challenge is changing the scopes and styles of the internship programs. A chemical engineer, for instance, may not get much out of an engineering internship program if there’s no lab work. Some companies are moving away from discrete tasks for interns and toward group-based projects, says Sam Seehra, Korn Ferry’s head of early careers and next-generation talent for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Doing that may try to replicate some of the interactions interns would normally get with full-time employees, and their intern colleagues, in a workplace setting.

Other companies are changing subjects entirely. One firm that expected to give students door-to-door sales experience has designed a program to train them how to do prospect research and demand forecasting. Others have just torn up their programs and are restarting from scratch. One tech firm had been relying on giving its interns supply chain–related work but found it impossible to do with students unable to go to company factories physically. So the firm created a leadership development program interns could do while they worked remotely.

The other challenge is cultural. Many organizations use their internship programs as a way to size up candidates for future full-time employment. At the same time, the programs give the interns a chance to learn a company’s corporate culture; sometimes the company summer picnic is more important than any work done over a program. Some firms are trying to re-create the cultural aspects of the programs virtually, says Seehra. TED Talks–style presentations, social media meetups, and even social hackathons are now on the menu.