KEY POINTS

  • Creating a virtual version of this collegiate rite of passage presents a challenge for companies
  • About three-quarters of college students complete at least one internship
  • Companies should consider creating intern-only communications channels where they can interact, ask each other questions, and access on-demand training. 

Summer is here. In years past, the end of the academic year marked the beginning of internship season for college students. This year, though, there will be no cubicle, corporate cafeteria, or even a need to wear shoes. The summer internship has moved online.

Creating a virtual version of this collegiate rite of passage presents a challenge for companies. How can students get to know a workplace they can't visit? It's a critical question for the many organizations where today's intern could be tomorrow's senior executive.

That’s why it’s so important employers ensure virtual internships remain meaningful and individually tailored. Those who don't achieve this can risk losing their next generation of leaders.

It's no secret internships are a major factor in post-college success. About three-quarters of college students complete at least one internship. In a report published this year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that companies offer full-time jobs to their interns at a 68 percent clip. Successful internships also lead to greater job satisfaction for those who go on to become employees. At companies NACE surveyed, retention rates were higher for former interns than for other workers. 

Some firms have cancelled their internship programs in light of the pandemic. But others are forging ahead. Handshake, an online community for new professionals, recently reported that 60 percent of employers surveyed plan to offer virtual internships in the coming year.

Tech giants like Amazon, Google, Microsoft and PayPal all took their internships online, as did major financial institutions like Morgan Stanley and Bank of America. At Abbott we hired nearly 230 high school and college interns this summer, similar to previous years.

They too will be working from home remotely, but we’re thinking innovatively to bring them into the real scientific world as much as we can. For example, interns will experience our manufacturing plants on live mobile video tours followed by review discussion sessions with on-site professionals. 

With smart planning and a think-ahead mindset, employers can recreate many of the serendipitous encounters that make internships worthwhile -- friendships born in the break room, opportunities to ask questions of the CEO at a town hall meeting, or those unplanned conversations with senior colleagues between meetings.

To foster mutual support among interns, companies should consider creating intern-only communications channels where they can interact, ask each other questions, and access on-demand training. At Abbott, we created an app -- Abbott InternLink -- where interns posted 30-second introduction videos and participate in virtual scavenger hunts and trivia contests.

This technology allowed the opportunity for innovative interactions among interns. A group of our college students used the app to organize a high school mentoring program. Now we have about two dozen college interns offering advice and support to their younger colleagues.

Expectations need to be laid out early and clearly. Who can interns turn to for help? How often should they check in with supervisors? How should they plan to seek and receive feedback? And how quickly should they answer email? It's harder to pick up the cues when work is remote.

Most crucially, employers must schedule meetings between interns and the professionals charged with offering guidance. At Abbott, we're assigning each intern multiple mentors. We'll also provide more senior coaches to groups of four to five interns who share interests. Executives including those from the corporate suite and senior business leaders will speak with and take questions from groups of interns regularly via video chat -- including our president and CEO, who will deliver a graduation address. 

We haven't previously enabled this level of interaction between interns and senior leaders across the company. We're surely not alone. But such opportunities for mentorship and network-building could make this year's virtual internships uniquely impactful.

We’re living in a world filled with unknowns. But one thing we can be sure of is that these young people need opportunities and support. Even remotely, companies can make internships meaningful and personal -- and help secure their own futures in the process.

Vildan Kehr is Divisional Vice President of Global Talent Acquisition at Abbott, a global healthcare technology company based in Chicago