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Published in Talent

Internships go virtual in era of social distancing

BY Sunday, May 24, 2020 06:25pm

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, many companies delayed the start of new internships by weeks, while a few outright canceled their programs. 

Then there’s Open System Technologies Inc., which this summer will host 15 interns from afar.

Rather than canceling or delaying its 2020 summer intern program because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grand Rapids-based software developer is among a number of employers that opted to go virtual instead. 

In the new era of social distancing and living with COVID-19, OST still needs to cultivate young talent, and summer internships for college students are a key element to the company’s recruiting strategy. In 2019, OST hired seven of its eight summer interns. Not doing the program this summer was never really a question.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining that talent pipeline meant transitioning to a remote internship program at OST, which has offices in Grand Rapids and Minneapolis, Minn.

“Our internship program is ultimately our number-one talent development pipeline,” said Hanna Staal, senior talent acquisition consultant with OST. “It’s pretty crucial to adding to our teams. When we talk about bringing in entry-level talent, this is our preferred way.”

OST puts summer interns to work in design, marketing, applications development and support, communications, and data analytics, Staal said. Among the considerations for OST’s move to virtual internships for 2020 were whether the work it planned to have interns do can occur remotely, whether the company can properly support interns remotely, and “how do we assure that a remote internship program has enough connection there,” she said.

“Do they feel connected and are they engaged, are they supported and how well their total experience pans out,” Staal said of the considerations.

The company is among the numerous firms that host college interns during the summer as an outreach and recruitment tool.

Because of the stay-home orders and travel restrictions that began in March in many states, employers had to make quick decisions on what to do this year, months after they had selected and made arrangements for their 2020 interns.

Hello West Michigan, a coalition that promotes the region as a talent destination, has been encouraging member employers to adjust and provide remote internships this year, said Executive Director Rachel Gray.

While working remotely may not work as well as an in-person program, it is doable and can send a message to that future talent pool, Gray said. Interns will understand that an employer needed to adjust to the circumstances of the pandemic and will respect a company for making an effort to try something new, she said.

“We’re encouraging companies to really pivot, take a chance and just try it. Even if the experience isn’t perfect, your interns will really appreciate the opportunity to work,” she said. “It does really show what the company is about, which is creativity and perseverance and saying, ‘Let’s work with what we’ve got.’

“From an employment branding standpoint, that’s a huge win for a company. It’s not just telling an intern and potential employee, ‘Hey, we’re creative and we’re innovative,’ but it’s actually showing and demonstrating it to them.”

Hello West Michigan has adjusted as well and plans to make its June 18 annual networking event virtual with workshops on topics that include working remotely, Gray said.

‘Investment into talent’

In West Michigan, SpartanNash Co. (Nasdaq: SPTN) was one the first local employers to transition to remote internships for this summer, Gray said.

The Byron Center-based grocery wholesaler and retailer plans to host 20 interns remotely this summer through locations in Grand Rapids, Minneapolis and Norfolk, Va., said Jamie Belt, SpartanNash’s talent acquisition consultant. Interns in accounting, supply chain, information technology and marketing will work remotely on business projects, job shadow an assigned mentor, and participate in virtual professional development events such as executive speakers and professional panels, Belt said.

As it is for many corporations, an intern program is part of a talent recruitment strategy at SpartanNash, she said.

“The goal of our internship program is to create a pipeline for early-in-career talent, and also provide an opportunity for college students to get hands-on experience to complement what they are learning about in their classrooms,” Belt said. “This goal remains the same, whether an internship is in-person or virtual. We are confident we can provide meaningful work experience to these students by committing to a remote program, and not lose our chance to connect with these talented individuals at the same time.

“The program is an investment into talent that we would like to join our team in the future. Without it, we would not be able to connect with as many bright, early-in-career individuals that come into our organization ready to drive innovation.”

Honoring commitments

Key to a remote internship program is ensuring that interns still have meaningful work, mentorship, and networking opportunities, according to executives contacted for this report. Increased preparation, communication and management remains pivotal.

To a number of college students, earning credit from a summer internship is one of the final steps toward earning a degree and graduating. As well, the students also may have been counting on the income that goes with the position, Gray said. In encouraging employers to switch to remote internships rather than outright cancel their programs, Hello West Michigan wants to maintain the ability for students to still get what they need, she said.

“It would really stink if you were a senior and this is the last thing you had to do and you’re going to walk and graduate and have your diploma, to then be told, ‘There’s no internship.’ What a terrible situation that would be,” Gray said. “It’s a really tough spot to be in.”

That was among the reasoning for OST’s decision to proceed with its 2020 virtual internship program, Staal said.

OST chose interns for this summer back in October and November of 2019. Staal felt a responsibility to proceed with a program this summer, even if it took on a different format.

“They selected us early on and they could have chosen somewhere else. I just couldn’t in my own conscience know that we canceled an internship program that they could be receiving credit for or they needed to be paid,” Staal said. “We’re going to make this work. We’re going to make this happen for them, even if it’s not ideal and even if it’s a little bit clunky.”

Finding alternatives

For students needing credits from an internship to graduate this year, colleges have been working to provide them alternatives.

Options at Calvin University depend “on what the major is, but each department is working with students on how to do alternative things or if there’s different approaches to accommodate for COVID-19,” said TaRita Johnson, director of the school’s Career Center.

“We’re not going to penalize students for not getting the experience. We’ll do alternatives to that,” Johnson said.

For college seniors who require an internship or clinical experience to graduate, such as for nursing majors, what they do this summer to get their final credits depends on the requirements of the accrediting body, Johnson said. Nursing, education and social work accrediting bodies “have found alternative ways (for students) to complete hours,” Johnson said. Education students, for example, can create an online teaching plan, she said.

Calvin also has helped students search for virtual internships and provided additional career coaching, she said.

“There’s no magic pill, but what we can do is walk alongside these students in the process,” Johnson said. “If an internship is canceled, we can give them tools and equip them in the virtual environment and say, ‘We’re going to coach you through this and help you make connections. We’re going to tell you what you need to do and help you find the companies.’”

Many of the employers in the region that bring aboard Calvin students as interns have indicated they planned to start later than the traditional early May date and condense the program, Johnson said. Others have committed to virtual internships, some have canceled, and Calvin has been contacted by employers that say they are still searching for summer interns, she said.

‘Think strategically’

At Aquinas College, “we are pivoting and we are pivoting quickly” to support students who lost their 2020 internship or had it curtailed, said Dana Hebreard, director of career services.

“The message is if the internship was canceled, not to lose hope. There are still other ways students can demonstrate career readiness and prepare to enter the workforce,” Hebreard said.

About one-quarter of Aquinas College students who had a paid internship during the spring semester continued working remotely without interruption following the state’s stay-at-home order. About one in five unpaid interns at a nonprofit organization were able to work from home on special projects “that were created so they could continue their experience,” Hebreard said.

About 40 percent of the unpaid interns had their internships suspended and transitioned to a special project to earn credit, she said.

A small number of Aquinas students who were doing an internship for credit that abruptly ended when the COVID-19 pandemic spread into Michigan were moved into a project on critical thinking with the Forest Hills Business Association, Hebreard said. The college also created an online career course “to fill in the gap” for students whose internships got shortened and would not provide the credit hours they needed, she said.

Given the scope of the pandemic and its effect on everyday life, students who graduate this year and head to the job market should expect to get questions in a job interview about how they adjusted, Hebreard said.

“Think strategically. How did you use your time effectively? Anticipate maybe future interviewers asking the question: ‘How did you spend your time in the COVID-19 pandemic,’” she said. “Your responses have a strong indicator of your character and how you motivate yourself during challenging circumstances and how you used your gifts in new and exciting ways.”

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