Coronavirus Brings Cloud of Uncertainty Over Summer Internships

The pandemic brought an abrupt end to many spring internships. Employers are evaluating how the virus will change next season’s programs.

When the novel coronavirus arrived in the U.S., it upended work for many. Among those whose jobs disappeared were interns.

Walt Disney Co. closed its U.S. theme parks in March, ending the internships of more than 2,200 students and recent graduates working in California and Florida, according to reporting by the Los Angeles Times. Some congressional interns working on Capitol Hill faced similar circumstances, while others were asked to work remotely, Politico reported.

With abrupt cancellations in the recent past and summer programs scheduled to start within weeks, employers are left to decide the fate of their upcoming plans and the interns that come with them.

For many, the decision still looms

A number of visible employers have already canceled their summer internship programs due to COVID-19. Yelp and the National Institutes of Health canceled their upcoming opportunities, and Goldman Sachs delayed and shortened its program, though it told interns it will pay in full.

Many employers are still evaluating the situation, according to Cameron Jahn, director of employer product marketing at Handshake, an early career network that says it connects 5 million student users, 900 colleges and universities and 500,000 employers. Among Handshake users, some have canceled their plans, but many are still evaluating the situation.

Handshake polled 1,000 college students and found that 30% of juniors and seniors surveyed said their internship offers had been rescinded. Fourteen percent of respondents said their internships were scheduled to proceed as planned and 6% of students reported that their internships had gone virtual.

Consider value, risk

As employers debate whether to call off their summer programming, they need to consider what they can offer participants under the circumstances, Jahn said. “Employers should consider whether they can offer a meaningful experience for interns,” he said. “Do they have the internal bandwidth, infrastructure, and technology to support remote interns? If not, how quickly and realistically can these components be sourced, secured, and implemented?”

Employers will need to determine the risk a canceled internship poses. If a company relies on early talent, Jahn said, an intern-less summer could hurt its recruiting strategy in the long term. “Organizations that reduce — or eliminate — their internship program may regret doing so a year or two later when they don’t have a strong candidate pipeline of interns who are looking to convert into full-time roles.”

The possibility of remote interns

A handful of employers have elected to take their internships online, an option many can consider, Jahn said. Virtual internships have emerged at many big tech companies, including Google, Twitter, IBM, Microsoft, Lyft and Salesforce, reported Axios.

A virtual internship could bring several benefits, according to Jahn. It could give a significant boost to an organization’s employer branding. “Employers can foster goodwill with early talent by providing them with valuable opportunities during this downturn, so that interns, in turn, can have a lasting positive association with a company that showcases its leadership during this time — and despite economic or environmental uncertainties,” Jahn said.

Virtual programs may be popular among students, too — or at least better than the alternative. According to the Handshake student survey, approximately 84% of students said they would participate in a remote internship.

Employers will need to direct the same energy and effort toward online internships as with their in-person programs, however. “Employers can set their interns up for success by developing an engaging, meaningful, and productive virtual internship program that gives interns the work experience and exposure to company culture that they are hoping to secure,” Jahn said.

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