Employee Engagement & Retention

A Lost Generation of Interns: Those New to the Workforce, and Their Employers, Face Obstacles

By Alexandra Frost

Last updated: Feb 15, 2023

What do internships look like in a fully remote or hybrid work world? Experts weigh in on how to make internship experiences feel hands-on and like an on-the-job work experience — without the physical workplace.

Brooke Cagle / Unsplash.
Brooke Cagle / Unsplash.

When I remember my own media internships, I was standing behind the chair of a top editor at our local newspaper, watching him fight for his position and relevance during the 2008 recession. I listened to his calls, his mumblings through edits — the cursor darting here and there through a document as he’d done thousands of times before, changing punctuation and typing notes to the writer. I’d follow him down the hall and hear his discussion with the writer after that, and even his reports to his boss weekly. All because I was working with him in person.

So, when my own editorial assistant, Kirsten Thomas, a top-notch college student looking for her first internship, brought up the dilemma of wanting to learn in person, not virtually, I knew exactly what she meant. Forbes reported that, according to a Ladders study, one in four North American workers will be fully remote by the end of 2022. When Thomas brought up her concerns in a mentorship session, she spoke the truth of an entire generation entering the workforce — how will we learn without those day-to-day interactions?

Those in the workforce pre-pandemic might take for granted that they’ve been in office environments, and learned what their work culture feels like around the lunch break table and in meeting rooms. But Thomas, and others her age, never have. Another of her friends is entering the medical field and starting grad school, without having a single in-person learning experience. “I never had the opportunity to be in person, and it feels kind of weird to graduate without ever having an in-person journalism job,” she said.

Training the newest employees among us, from afar

Not only do interns have added pressure to analyze company culture and ask questions to aid their learning from their own homes, but companies have to find new ways to fully educate, replacing formerly in-person learning processes. Julie McClure, a former investment banker and the current CEO of Hello.Me, a femtech company focused on women’s hormone health, serves on the Board of Directors for the UCLA Entrepreneurship Program, working with interns. She tends to hire those who have a “little bit of experience” already with company cultures.

“It’s really difficult for interns to kind of get up to speed learning the company culture, and if it’s their first time ever working in a corporate environment, it’s really hard to learn those subtleties that relate to the job, unless you are doing something very tactical like a research project,” she said. But, one of the benefits is that she can access talent from anywhere in the world that she couldn’t previously tap into, thanks to remote work.

McClure references learning through “osmosis” as an essential step for interns, so currently, her interns work on a hybrid model, three days in the office and two from home, which she calls “the best of both worlds,” and demands less commuting time from them.

Akhila Satish, CEO of Meseekna (which helps executives and young professionals with decision-making) and a 2021 Forbes Next 1000 award winner, calls the intern’s learning, which may be harder via Zoom, the “invisible layer of the job.”

“I remember learning very clearly how to set things up because my mentor would just say, ‘Come over here and look over my shoulder.’ So you would see things that you didn’t even know to ask about,” she said. Communicating those essentials interns don’t even know to ask via Zoom is the task of the decade.

The practices that can bridge the gap for virtual interns

What if, on the first day of the virtual internship, an employer could hand their mentee a playbook for what to expect? This level of organization may seem highly unlikely in the hustle and bustle of most companies’ processes, but it doesn’t have to be. Satish recommends a simple, one-week-long practice to help virtual interns onboard properly — a work log.

“What are the components of your day? What platforms are you on?...and what’s the goal you are leaning towards?” Answering these questions via a pen to paper tool, tracking your time for a week (or having a veteran intern track theirs to pass along) can eliminate much of the “what do I do now” questions interns may virtually have.

Along with the log, Satish said that employers have to be more “hyper-aware” that an intern is entirely new to the workplace, and “lead with intentionality.” She recommends having at least one “personal touchpoint” per day, where interns can chat with their managers, and then more periodic check-ins with upper-level management.

She also starts with the intern’s end in mind — “You need to create an experience that’s going to help them get to their final job. So what, right off the bat, are those resume bullets going to look like? And what’s the job that they’re going to do and how can you help them get the skills to get there?”

Seeking an experience that matters

While interns might find themselves in a wide variety of company cultures, both virtually or in person, their first experiences can shape their view of work, possibly forever. So, Michael Gibbs, CEO of Go Cloud Careers, a global organization that provides training for elite cloud computing careers, works to make sure they “actually learn the job.” He seeks to involve his student interns in presentations to enhance their communication skills, even virtually, and by putting them in situations where teamwork is a must.

“We have been highly successful in using virtual internships to help people build elite technology careers. But we work hard to make the virtual internship feel more like a real internship,” he said.

He explains the specifics:

  • We have frequent check-ins with the manager and the intern.
  • We have a dedicated messaging platform (Slack) to promote communication and collaboration.
  • The projects we give our interns are the same as the person will be doing in their real job.
  • We make the interns deliver presentations so they can optimize their communication skills.
  • We have frequent meetups and gatherings — both online and in-person to build a sense of community.
  • We have the interns work in teams - just as they would in the real world.
  • We make sure someone answers any questions as fast as possible.

Interns can be sure that they are set up for success especially through that last point — having someone to reach out to with questions that can provide quick answers, which is as close to an in-person, “over the shoulder” setting as possible. Providing phone numbers, in addition to tools such as Slack, matters for time-sensitive questions, and learning. McClure said, “Everyone’s got a direct relationship that they’re reporting to that they can get close to.”

She adds that for interns to really stand out in this new virtual and hybrid work world, they need to demonstrate their drive and hustle, and take the initiative like they would in person. “People exude energy when they’re passionate.”

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