Virtual internships and the Zoom skills you don't learn in college

There are no coffee runs when you WFH. Image: vicky leta By Natasha Piñon2020-06-06 11:00:00 UTC With the spread of the coronavirus, summer internships — once a staple of collegiate and post-grad life — have dried up. Now, like many jobs, they've...

Virtual internships and the Zoom skills you don't learn in college
There are no coffee runs when you WFH.
There are no coffee runs when you WFH.
Image: vicky leta

With the spread of the coronavirus, summer internships — once a staple of collegiate and post-grad life — have dried up. Now, like many jobs, they've gone virtual. 

A survey of more than 400 companies conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that around 80 percent of employers were making some kind of change to their internship programs, which included things like pivoting to remote work or shortening the length of the program. (Other programs have been canceled or postponed.) 

For most students and recent grads, though, a loss of internships might be just one of several other concerns. Young people entering the workforce right now, whether as graduates of the Class of 2020 or as current students, are encountering a job market in which more than one in five Americans are unemployed. (Analysis from payroll platform Gusto found that those under 25 are experiencing a job loss rate 93 percent higher than those 35 and older.) 

To make matters worse, many seasonal jobs at restaurants and coffee shops have disappeared because of COVID-19 lockdowns. That makes internships one of the few employment options left for many young people. 

And for students who come from less privileged backgrounds, internships can provide a ladder to higher-paying work down the road, said Carlos Mark Vera, co-founder of Pay Our Interns, a nonprofit centered on the rights of interns.

"Internships work as a pivot point. For working class students, it gives them a foot in the door," Mark Vera said. "[With cancellations], you're impacting folks who don't have the same networks as other folks. This is hurting everyone, but it's hurting some students more than others." 

"This is hurting everyone, but it's hurting some students more than others."

Shawn VanDerziel, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), predicts the summer of 2020 will serve as a watershed moment for virtual internships. 

"[This] summer is a big test," VanDerziel said. "If I had to predict, there will be many more virtual internships moving forward." 

Goodbye, career center listservs

For some people, virtual internships aren't a new concept.

Back in 2017, the gears were already turning for Ahva Sadeghi and Nikita Gupta, the co-founders of Symba, one of the few platforms out there that helps companies find and manage virtual interns. 

Students can find virtual internships on the platform. Once they send in their resumes and answer job-specific questions, Symba's team analyzes them, and then sends qualified candidates to companies

Additionally, for employers implementing a virtual internship program, Symba’s team designs onboarding and orientation materials, as well as feedback and performance metrics specific to the internship.  

When they launched, back in 2019, Sadeghi says employers were largely hesitant. 

"It was like that line from Mean Girls," Sadeghi said, in reference to Regina George's iconic zinger. "Like, 'Stop trying to make virtual internships happen.'"

The coronavirus pandemic changed quickly that. 

"This is the future of work," Sadeghi said. "People don't need to put on a suit, go to a cubicle, or wait until summer to [do an internship.] We're preparing people for what work looks like now."  

Symba's not alone. Chuck Isgar and Megan Kasselberg, two students from Brown University, co-founded Intern From Home, a portal for employers and potential interns to connect. 

The platform, which their team initially built in 48 hours after being told to leave campus because of COVID-19, compiles job listings, not unlike Indeed or Glassdoor. Students can look for internships by job category, role, and internship type (current or exclusively summer; paid or unpaid).

This means that rather than slogging through general online job hubs or relying on listservs, students can come to Intern From Home with one goal: Find a virtual internship. 

"This is the future of work. We're preparing people for what work looks like now."  

Intern From Home primarily posts internships from startups, including some from Y Combinator and Snap’s accelerator program, which typically reach out to the site to get their internship positions listed. Students then submit applications, all of which are managed through Google Forms. 

Unlike Symba, Isgar and Kasselberg's team sends all applications to employers. (Intern From Home is free for both employers and students, unlike Symba, which makes money by charging corporations for its services.)

Isgar claims students can find a job on Intern From Home much faster than on traditional career sites. Some students were able to find an internship "in a couple of days," she said, which is a "big plus to people."

Miryam Rudolph, a student at Duke University who found her current summer internship through Intern From Home, noted that when she first started applying to positions in March, she was looking on generic job boards and email blasts that her school was sending out. 

"The big problem at that stage was that companies were so overwhelmed about what to do with their own employees that they weren't really thinking about [hiring] interns," Rudolph said. 

It was frustrating, in Rudolph’s telling, to put so much energy into finding (seemingly) open positions, writing cover letters, and polishing up her resume, only to find that the company was on a hiring freeze, or had terminated their internship program entirely without conveying that information on their website. (She's still getting emails saying positions she applied for in March now don’t exist.) 

Rudolph called Intern From Home a "lifesaver."

"It was the only site where I actually heard back from companies," Rudolph said. 

No cubicle needed

If the current uptick in virtual internships holds, it could shift a generation’s relationship to work. 

Depending on a student’s background, an internship might mark their first encounter with an office setting, Vera from Pay Our Interns notes. For many, a formal internship can serve as an introduction to the basics of office life, such as how to interact with co-workers and dress for work. Should virtual internships remain popular, it could become more difficult for students — particularly those who are first-generation or from low-income backgrounds — to learn the ins and outs of working in an office. 

VanDerziel, executive director of NACE, highlighted several skills that are especially important to an intern’s success in a virtual setting. 

First, interns need to be proactive about communicating. It's easier to disappear from your boss' radar when you're just a name on a screen. They also need time management skills, since there is nothing stopping them from wasting a couple of hours watching Netflix each day. For those with chaotic home lives, carving out the time and space to work could prove especially challenging, VanDerziel notes. 

Additionally, interns need a level of tech savvy and adaptability to adjust to unfamiliar situations. Even students acclimated to a semester of remote schoolwork might not be totally comfortable in a more formal work environment.  

He notes that some personality types might be at a disadvantage: It’s easier for interns who are quiet to isolate themselves, which makes it more difficult for them to become "known."

It’s also important to note that many (virtual) internships are shortening their duration, potentially giving interns less time to make connections at their workplace.  

"We found that 41 percent of employers were reducing the length of the internship for the summer," VanDerziel said. "What that says to me is that companies are being creative and careful." 

Though in some cases existing programs are just shortening their usual in-person program to adapt to remote work, VanDerziel also points to the emergence of what he calls "micro internships," shorter, project-based internships, which can be a way for interns to gain specific skills. 

Rudolph notes that the structure of her internship, which is project-based rather than a traditional nine-to-five, has allowed her to explore other interests this summer as well. (She’s also helping out a local nonprofit near her house, and working for a lab from her school remotely.)

"It’s something I didn’t expect, but it’s helped me to work on other projects as well," Rudolph said. 

Location, location, location 

Requiring students to move to major metropolises, like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, has long prevented students unable to relocate from accessing otherwise valuable internship opportunities. (As a point of reference: The average rent in Los Angeles is over $2,500, according to the listing service RentCafe.) 

"Unless you can afford to temporarily move, you're not going to be able to get those good internships," Vera said. 

Thus far, the virtual internships being offered this summer have largely circumvented this: Technology permitting, students living at home in Michigan could complete an internship "in" New York, and vice versa.

When Rudolph went looking for internships, back in March, she largely ignored the locations posted alongside them (that is, if they even listed one), assuming that most of them would be moved online. (Rudolph lives in Dallas, but her fellow interns are all in different time zones.) 

That’s a major plus for interns living in less urban areas, for instance, as well as those financially unable to relocate — but it’s only useful insofar as interns have broadband access, a living situation conducive to work, and other essential tools at their disposal. 

Though VanDerziel notes some internship programs are able to provide laptops and iPads for their interns working remotely right now, it could be a barrier for many interns, particularly those in financially harder-hit industries, or those working for small companies. 

Virtual mixers

At big companies, internships typically include educational and social interaction among interns, VanDerziel points out, which is something that has had to pivot online as well. 

"One of the things that is really important is the ability to interact with [employees] regularly," VanDerziel said. "[This regular interaction can be] used as a pipeline for future employment."

In the past, though, networking events, like industry-specific happy hours, were cost-prohibitive for many interns, Vera points out. Now, plenty of virtual internship programs have remote happy hours and mixers, which Vera acknowledges could help those unable to afford in-person meetups. 

In some instances, outside groups might be able to step in as well. Isgar and Kasselberg’s team at Intern From Home launched a discussion-based program called "Cohorts" in which students can apply for live sessions with peers and experts to learn about work-related topics. (Sample "Cohorts" topics include "The Power of Data Visualization" and "Competitions, Acquisitions, and Monopolies in Big Tech.") 

When students left his school’s campus in March, Isgar felt as if the main thing missing from remote learning was stimulating in-class discussions. "Cohorts" is meant to recreate that in an internship context. 

"The mission is to replicate those discussions," Isgar said. "It’s challenging to be networking [remotely]. You can’t get coffee." 

It's likely, though, that interns down the road won't be fetching coffee either, like so many internships of yore. With the disruption to internships already brought on by the summer of 2020, it's likely that changes to the working world for young people are just starting. 

Let's block ads! (Why?)