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While many people were able to shift to remote work, still others faced extended furloughs or lost their jobs outright. There are quite a few employment casualties as a result of COVID-19. Internships were no exception.

University students count on summer internships for valuable job experience and important networking opportunities. And according to talent acquisition company Yello, 64% of employers cancelled internships without any compensation.

2020 was not a good year for the summer intern, and many are beginning to wonder if 2021 will be any better.  

Changing Hiring Processes and Activities

Many companies shifted to provide virtual versions of product offerings during the pandemic, and similar changes have been put in place when it comes to internships.

“Our process and criteria have remained the same but the media has changed to fully virtual," said Steve Cooper, CEO of software development firm Exelaration. "We conduct all our interviews and group exercises over Zoom now and our scheduling and internship offer process remains fully virtual as before the pandemic.” 

Matt Bertram, CEO at EWR Digital, said his company also shifted to virtual internships. "As many of our workforce now work remotely, this was an easy decision to make," he said. "We look for interns who can help us with a current project or have specific skills that we need.” 

The shift to virtual hasn’t slowed other activities which were once limited to the physical office, either. Exeleration's Cooper points to the company's long-standing group interview process. In the past, the company would invite 15-20 candidates to an Exelaration office and form teams of 3-4 students that each undergo four different simulation scenarios in a different room while staff members observe how they respond.

At first glance, that type of high-touch, collaborative process seems like a bad fit for the world of virtual communication. But with a little ingenuity, Exeleration was able to adapt the interview process to the virtual environment.  

“Exercises range from building a bridge to defining a project plan to formulating a recommendation for a client compromise," Cooper said. "Many of these exercises involved props and physical activities, so we retooled them to be all virtual within Zoom breakout rooms."

They didn’t lose much in the transition from in-person to virtual, Cooper said. "In fact, some aspects of the online environment were actually better,” he added.  

The new remote hiring and internship process also opened new opportunities and access to a larger talent pool. Tom Winter, co-founder of DevSkiller, a testing platform for software developers, said it has significantly changed his hiring process, allowing him to take a look at people outside of the New York area, where the company is based.

"The pool of talents to choose from is much bigger, but so are the demands," he said. "When it comes to interns, I will also choose people who live in different cities and countries and I think this is an amazing opportunity for everyone. My team will be diverse, and new interns will get a chance to work for a good IT company without having to relocate physically.”

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Remote Learning and Adapting to a Changing Environment

Research analysts expect enrollment in some university classes to decrease by 5-20% as a result of the pandemic and the inability of many colleges to provide the full on-campus experience. Some believe that this can, in fact, prove beneficial to students. Count DevSkiller's Winter among those with a positive outlook.

“Since everything is functioning in the virtual world, I think that remote education can only be beneficial for current students,” he said. “They will get used to the technology and a system that requires them to be completely independent.” 

For interns, Exeleration's Cooper said the benefits of the shift to remote and virtual internships outweigh the costs. “The work they do in our program accelerates what they’re learning in their classes. Now that both their classes and their client work are remote, there’s a consistency to each intern’s daily routine,” he said.  

As the world around them changes, interns and the companies that hire them need to focus on new skills that can keep them agile. “For 2021, we need to be prepared and adaptable given the uncertain times ahead. Accordingly, we will be looking for interns who can take the initiative, are quick to learn and who possess strong communication skills,” said Bertram.

Being independent and having the ability to think on one’s feet without needing too much guidance will be a key differentiating factor, according to Winter. “Since my business has been operating fully remotely for a while, I need to hire people who are independent and have a strong work ethic," he said. "It is virtually impossible to oversee every move, so I need to rely on employees doing their best without my constant supervision.”

Preparing interns to deal with uncertainty in the work environment is part of the educational experience, Cooper said. And just like before, it is the intangible qualities that will continue to set top interns apart in the next year.

“Our hiring criteria for our interns, which emphasize collaboration, passion for technology and analytical thinking have not changed as a result of the pandemic," Cooper said.