Summer is traditionally a time for college students to get valuable work experience to boost their resumes and possibly get their foot in the door for a job after graduation. But finding such opportunities is suddenly harder: About 22 percent of employers are revoking offers to interns as they cut back or eliminate such programs for the summer because of the pandemic, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
So colleges are turning to a number of companies that have emerged in recent years to help encourage and manage remote internships.
One such company, Practera, recently made its service available for free to colleges that want to participate (until August of 2021), through a pilot program funded by a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Six colleges have signed on in the last couple of weeks, joining those who were already working with the company, including Northeastern University, which is an investor in the company. Colleges participating in the free service must agree to participate in a research study about the service being administered by Northeastern.
The online platform helps companies manage the work of virtual interns, who typically work in teams to complete specific projects, says Wes Sonnenreich, Practera’s co-CEO.
Sonnereich says that his company has been managing virtual internships with companies and colleges in Australia for five years, and that the key is to have companies offer mentorship and guidance to remote interns as they complete their projects.
These experiences differ from traditional internships, he says. “In the same way that the best online teaching doesn’t try to replicate the physical classroom, it’s the same with virtual internships.”
But one good thing, he added, is that none of the remote interns are asked to fetch coffee for the boss. They focus on doing meaningfulful work.
An export company that they worked with, for example, used the program to have a team of five students come up with a market-entrance strategy to set up business in China. So they used the Practera system to hire five remote interns who were international students from China who were studying in the U.S.
The company gave clear instructions to the students on how to create a market-entrance strategy, and a mentor from the company served as a project manager for the team.
When managed well, projects can be completed without too much hand-holding from company officials, claims Sonnereich. “We go to companies and say it’s only going to be 5 hours of your time over the next month,” he says. In return, “you’re going to get 200 hours of student work over a team of 5 students over the month.
For students, they have a work product to show off to other employers and a narrative of how they’ve already helped a company solve a problem.
Before the pandemic, one selling point for companies was that they got work without having to find an office for an intern. Today, though, with offices closed, just about everyone is now working from home.
Colleges pay Practera for use of the service on their campuses. In some cases, the colleges offer credit for the virtual internships or make them part of a course. Some of the companies pay the students and others don’t.
Practera also provides researchers to students who participate on how to do remote work effectively, says Nikki James, the company's chief learning officer. "Students may not have worked remotely before, and that's a skill in itself," she says.
A ‘Weird’ COVID Summer
Another company, Parker Dewey, offers remote project-based internships that it calls “microinternships.” The projects typically take students between five to 40 hours to complete over a period of a few weeks.
“Over the past two weeks we’ve probably doubled the number of universities with which we have partnerships,” says Jeffrey Moss, founder and CEO of Parker Dewey. “There’s a massive increase in the number of schools because they’re trying to figure out how to be responsive.”
He says many companies that have cancelled traditional internship programs are coming to them and looking for something remote and smaller in scale. “They may not need 100 interns, but they still need help,” he says.
Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business is among those using Parker Dewey. Last month it sent an email to alumni encouraging them to offer remote internships through the system.
Some did, though “not a ton,” says Rebecca Cook, executive director of undergraduate career services at the business school. But she says the graduate career center recently picked up 18 new remote projects for students after putting out a similar call.
The school has about 2,000 students in the junior class, and she says she knows of about 80 students who have lost an internship due to cancellations. The industries that have shuttered programs have mainly been in industries hardest hit by the recent business shutdowns, such as airlines and cruise companies.
“This summer is just so weird that I think students are trying to figure out, ‘OK, what can I do?’” says Cook. “Every employer in the fall is going to say, ‘What did you do during the COVID summer?’ As long as you can show that you didn’t just play video games or just hang out by the pool,” she says, future employers will understand if someone didn’t have a traditional internship this summer. Some students are looking to spend time learning to code online, while she has suggested to others that they contact a local business and offer to help remotely, even if it is unpaid.
“We’re using it as one of many tools,” says Cook, of the microinternships. “It’s really providing a menu for students.”