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What's Next for Internships?

May 06, 2022 Talent Management
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

As the world of business changed over the last two years, organizations had to quickly pivot to new ways of operating in many, if not most, areas. Digital transformation accelerated as companies invested in new technologies to operate efficiently at a distance or safely in person. Customer-facing functions learned to adapt quickly to changing market conditions and internal operations retooled to focus on boosting collaboration and teamwork and emphasizing employee experience. 

The way companies handled internships was no exception to the disruption. Today, as companies look to the future with a hybrid or remote lens, the concept of internship may have been changed irreversibly.

Internships are likely to evolve in many ways, and the new model stands to benefit both employers and interns. From the intern perspective, the rise of remote and hybrid options has torn down geographical barriers and opened up new opportunities. For employers, that means they have a broader and potentially deeper pool of candidates to draw from.

Internships, Then and Now

The term “intern” was first applied to medical students in the 1920s, according to an analysis conducted by Washington, D.C.,-based professional research firm Taylor Research Group. While still used in medical education, the term has come to be more widely used across multiple other areas of business. Taylor Research Group estimated that up to 40,000 interns gain real-world work experience every year in the Washington, D.C., area alone.

Internships have long been deemed a rite of passage for students — and many count on it to kickstart their careers and find workplace applications for their education. Yet, prior to the pandemic, most companies didn’t find the value in experimenting with internships as much as they did with full-time employees. In a way, COVID-19 forced companies to rethink their programs, said Ahva Sadeghi, co-founder and CEO of Symba, a San Francisco-based technology platform for managing internship programs.

"Leaders were faced with big questions, do we even host a program this year? And how do we do it?” she said. “We’re seeing more fall and spring programs opening in addition to summer programming, more remote and hybrid options, and apprenticeships, co-ops and returnships are on the rise.”

As companies have had to become more creative and experiment to adapt to remote and hybrid environments, they have also had to make internships more accessible.

Related Article: How Dropping the Degree Can Solve Your Recruiting Challenge

4 Ways Internships Are Changing

Here are four key effects of these changes for companies: 

1. Different Types of Internships

The purpose of an internship is to provide experience and prepare college students for their careers post-graduation. However, one of the knock-on effects of the pandemic is that fewer students are enrolling in universities. As a result, there is a likelihood that different types of internships will become available to accommodate the new reality.

“If designed well, internship programs can actually teach talent on the job and set them up for future success at your company,” said Sadeghi, who noted that even if interest in higher education degrees continues to drop, it can create new opportunities for other types of learning to develop talent. 

Related Article: 5 Strategies to Attract and Retain Talent in a Tight Labor Market

2. Increased Diversification

Internships provide an opportunity for companies to diversify their workforce and add new perspectives to the conversation. Age diversity, of course, is evident when onboarding students, but companies that have long been accustomed to hiring employees within a specific location or demographic can also find fresh new takes on what they do by bringing in someone from a different locale and day-to-day reality.

Including internships as part of diversity and employee retention programs can yield several benefits. For instance, it can help drive innovation, explore new markets and customer segments, and improve the quality and diversity of people joining the company. 

3. Fewer Unpaid Internships

With the possibilities afforded by the digital workplace, there is also potential for internship programs to become a rarity. “I believe we will start to see fewer internships across all industries, as young professionals are becoming more interested in either starting their own businesses or looking for jobs that will immediately provide them good pay and good benefits,” said Peter Robert, founder and CEO of Houston, Texas-based Expert Computer Solutions.

One of the reasons, he said, is that many internships are unpaid. Younger generations have recognized the importance of fair compensation and will seek out opportunities that help them build a strong foundation in their professional and personal lives.

“Although internships can offer numerous benefits, businesses need to reconsider their internship programs and ensure that young professionals are getting compensated no matter what,” Robert said, adding that doing so could increase employee retention. 

4. More Flexibility

With the Great Resignation going strong, companies are continuously seeking new ways to keep their employees engaged and productive. This often translates to a more flexible work model. 

Corey Ashton Walters, founder and CEO of Miami-based vacation rental company Here, said that flexibility should also extend to internships. “We understand that the workforce is evolving to a remote setting so if our interns feel more comfortable in a work-from-home environment, we’ll allow it,” he said. 

Internships, like other work roles, have changed tremendously in recent years. Leadership's role is to learn from those lessons to define and execute workforce strategies that will give them the talent edge they need to succeed in the future. 

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