Businesses find ways to offer internships despite pandemic disruption

July 23, 2020

Kira Kimball had to put her title of chief innovation officer to good use this summer, leading a brainstorming effort at Marsh & McLennan Agency to help reimagine what the firm’s internship could look like as COVID-19 forced changes to how and where her team worked.

“The whole process wasn’t difficult; we just had to imagine it,” Kimball said. “We had to figure out ‘what is this going to look like from a virtual perspective?’ We had to come together as an organization around the country to create something new.”

The insurance agency typically offers a 12-week summer internship program, where interns come into the office Monday through Friday. In adapting this year, the firm pivoted to a four-week “externship” program, with a series of webinars hosted by Marsh & McLennan national executives. While they didn’t get the office experience, the interns did have access to leaders at the highest level.

“We built something where everybody can meet our national CEO, and that was pretty cool,” Kimball said. “Instead of showcasing local, we went national.”

The millions of college students who gain job experience each summer through internships — and the companies that welcome them — have had to make many such shifts this year. While some Sioux Falls businesses have been able to bring students into the workplace with some adjustments, others have created programs to try to provide that professional experience.

At Raven Industries, most of its two dozen interns were brought back into the office in early June, conducting most of the program in-person with standard safety guidelines except for online mentoring and learning sessions. 

“A majority of them are able to be in the office or the field, but a few are working completely remotely,” communications manager Lisa McElrath said.

The internship program included a one-on-one, socially distant session with CEO Dan Rykhus.

“We also pair them (interns) with a mentor in the organization, and we’ve continued those relationships virtually and in person as well,” McElrath said.

Interns have responded well, she added.

“They’re so grateful,” she said. “I personally gave a virtual session on personal branding, and I thought they were so engaged. I was really impressed with the group this year. I think they’re adapting well.”

Like many businesses, SDN Communications had hired its interns before COVID-19 hit Sioux Falls. It’s usually designed as a hands-on, in-person experience with more than a dozen interns.

“We very much treat them like employees,” said Vernon Brown, vice president of marketing and community relations. “They do really valued work for us.”

While SDN shifted to remote work, interns had to as well. Brown said the company is focused on still giving them the best experience possible, including important work to complete. He interacts with the interns in his department almost daily, giving them lots of virtual touch points not unlike those for full-time employees. 

In years past, SDN interns usually report at the end of their experience that it helped them learn how to work in a professional environment, Brown saId. While that aspect has been mostly taken away from this year’s interns, SDN has tried to replicate important social and professional experiences through a socially distanced picnic and TV commercial shoot. 

“The biggest disadvantage is that there’s so much to learn, and it’s harder to do that over Zoom,” he said. “They don’t get to know each other and the employees, and it’s kind of tunnel vision because they’re only getting to see their department’s colleagues. But we’ve still tried to, where possible, give them the experiences that they don’t get in a classroom.”

After disliking last semester’s entirely online finish, Kendall Fouts, a South Dakota State University senior and SDN marketing intern, was worried about doing her internship virtually as well. However, she said the adjustment has been made easy by the collaborative environment that SDN fosters.

“A big thing with marketing is it’s a lot of collaboration,” Fouts said. “If I were in an office, the collaboration would happen in real time. There’s definitely a delay to it, but it does help with working in teams and regular emails and check-ins.”

The welcoming nature of her team has been a big help in bridging the gap that can occur with remote work, she said.

“It’s pretty different from what I’m used to, but after this internship I’ve realized that remote work is a lot easier than I expected it to be. I think in the future I would embrace it.”

Another SDN intern, Zurab Lomidze, has faced the challenges of being an international student during this summer’s pandemic. An Augustana University student studying computer information systems and business, Lomidze is unable to return to his home in the Eurasian country of Georgia because of COVID-19. He always planned to stay in Sioux Falls for the summer, though he was planning to take a gap semester in the fall and go home — plans that have since changed. 

Lomidze has completed his work in SDN’s business intelligence division entirely from his Augustana dorm, building interactive dashboards to help crunch internal sales data. He said he at first enjoyed the freedom of working virtually but soon fell into the monotony of working in the same place every day. 

“At first, it was kind of nice as I can do work whenever I’d like, but it got boring quickly,” Lomidze said. “I’ve definitely missed meeting new people and networking myself.”

At advertising agency Lawrence & Schiller, internships are key to recruiting — almost half the long-term staff are former interns. This summer, the firm still hosted five in-person interns but broadened its approach to offer a virtual program aimed at students who had lost internship opportunities because of the pandemic.

“We talked about people who wouldn’t get internships at all,” said vice president of creative services Kristy Laue. “A lot of them need that to graduate, so we launched this program so they were still on track.”

The virtual program included 23 virtual lessons across media, digital, copy, design, consumer insights and account service disciplines led by L&S agency leaders. It’s self-directed, so students can compete the lessons on their own time frame. Upon completion, they’re offered a badge to add to their resumes or LinkedIn profiles to help showcase their experience.

“An intern’s No. 1 question coming in is knowing where they would fit,” Laue said. “Both of our internship programs are a good way to get a look at that without being in an agency.”

Nearly 80 students participated, including recent University of South Dakota graduate Chance Glaser.

“The biggest advantage of doing the internship virtually was being able to complete the lessons on my own time,” Glaser said. “I work at my full-time job during the day, so it was nice coming home at night and still being able to learn new skills.”

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Businesses find ways to offer internships despite pandemic disruption

It’s a summer unlike any other to be an intern. But businesses are adapting as they continue to offer valuable work experience.

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