How to Do a Virtual Internship: Work-Based Learning During COVID-19

This is the first post in a brief series on work-based learning opportunities in a virtual environment. For more information, please reach out to us—we’d love to hear from you.

Internships and other work-based learning (WBL) opportunities are a time-honored strategy for building a strong workforce pipeline for any organization—especially when executed in a strategic manner that maximizes value for all parties involved.

Traditional internships and other WBL have taken place on-site at a company’s facilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, thrown a wrench in many organizations’ plans for such programs, as a majority of work is taking place from home for the foreseeable future. Without being able to convene in person, should organizations still offer internships and other WBL opportunities? If so, how do they do so in a meaningful and effective way in a virtual setting?

Below, HEI provides the preliminary steps and strategies for bringing these opportunities online. For the sake of this post, we’ll use the term “work-based learning (WBL)” to cover internships and apprenticeships, as well as related experiences including sessions with guest speakers, workplace tours, informational interviews, short classes, and career counseling.

Implementing Virtual Work-Based Learning

Many of the preliminary strategies below are similar to those that would be applied within an in-person setting but require additional attention to apply in a virtual environment.

  • Identify a high-level employee(s) to lead all WBL efforts. It is important that one point of contact oversees the organization or company’s WBL efforts—and that this individual has high level buy-in (e.g., the ability to leverage human and financial resources as needed). This person will ensure that students have adequate access to company resources and can articulate across the company the short- and long-term benefits it receives from providing WBL activities, generate increased participation among staff, and ensure that staff, as best as possible, reflect the diverse students they will engage.
  • Review company’s technology policy. Each employer should identify relevant policies for engaging non-employees in a virtual setting. For example, the following questions may need to be addressed: Does age impact engagement? Are there minimum software and hardware requirements for engagement? Do non-employees need to be granted special access? What role can social media play? Employers should also be prepared to help students access prerequisite software and hardware, as well as assist with troubleshooting.
  • Clearly define the WBL activity. In virtual settings, shorter, more narrowly defined WBL activities may work best. For each activity, employers should answer the following questions: How does the activity benefit the student? How does the activity benefit the company and/or region? How is the activity directly connected to knowledge, skills, and competencies for a current or projected company role(s)?
  • Prepare employees to engage students virtually. Employers should prepare staff for engaging students in a virtual context. There will not be opportunities for spontaneous conversations in the hallway with an intern or someone to greet a student doing an informational interview in a physical waiting area. Issues related to evaluating student productivity remotely, setting expectations for virtual face-to-face time, and limiting distractions are all important discussions to have.
  • Provide a virtual on-boarding process. One benefit of in-person WBL experiences is the ability to communicate company culture in a variety of ways. Employers must be more intentional about communicating company culture in a virtual setting. How can a student get a sense of the company’s values and “how things are done” without walking the office halls? The use of pre-recorded videos and photos or sharing a screenshot of a “typical workday” are some ways to address this issue.
  • Create opportunities for follow-up. This may be many students’ first introduction to an industry and having someone they can follow-up with, in the future, may help increase their awareness and interest. This can be informal by providing contact information or conducted formally by engaging the same students in multiple, distinct WBL activities.
  • Track for equity. We know, for example, that women and students of color, including women of color, are underrepresented in the IT field. We also know that increasing representation will help the region meet current, critical gaps in workforce talent. Each employer should intentionally recruit diverse students and track student participation by group to determine whether additional measures must be taken to increase diversity in student participation.
  • Be patient, flexible, and open to learn. Employers have found themselves in a position they could not have fully predicted and the same is true for students. Students should witness employers model the type of patience, flexibility, and willingness to learn from new challenges that are valuable assets in any industry.

As employers contemplate mobilizing WBL and devising strategies regarding its implementation, it is important to recognize and highlight the value of quality WBL to both students and employers. Students benefit from gains in career exposure, hands-on industry involvement, reinforcement of academic learning, and paid work experience. Employers benefit from the development of robust talent pipelines, access to a diverse labor pool, positive reputation, increased employee buy-in, and growth in business prospects.  Overall, quality WBL is accessible to all, aiding in participants’ development of industry-specific skills and knowledge, while also strengthening the pipeline to support the cultivation of a talented, technically literate workforce.

Stay tuned for our next post in this series on ensuring the quality of WBL. Have questions? Please reach out to us!