The employers that could best weather the coronavirus pandemic in terms of their college recruiting programs will find ways to adapt to current conditions and still deliver on the aspects of their programs that are most important to college students.
This will be especially true in the coming days and weeks as organizations decide whether to forge ahead with, make changes to, or halt their summer internship programs.
For those that decide to take their internships to the virtual space, there is some good news: A review of research conducted last year that compares the impact of “perks” on students’ acceptances of full-time offers reveals that the most important ones transfer to the remote format.
“The top three perks that students want are meetings with senior leadership, professional development and skills training, and project presentation to management, all of which can be reworked for virtual implementation,” says Mary Scott, president of Scott Resource Group, who conducted the research.
“When you really listen to students and take these top perks in aggregate, what is most important to them is employers’ investment in them in terms of time and resources.”
Scott’s research reveals that students place more value on these top perks than they do on social activities, employee activities, e.g., field days, and fun activities, e.g., cooking classes and baseball games.
Not only do students want access to senior leadership, but also they are seeking to strengthen their skills, to make bigger and better contributions to their assignments, and to validate the contributions they do make to management.
“These can all be replicated in the virtual workplace,” Scott says.
“For example, although it sounds like an oxymoron, personal interaction can still be done virtually. We are all proficient in using Zoom these days. The key is to use virtual communication in ways that look and feel authentic. The consistent complaint students have expressed prior to now is that virtual connections felt ‘impersonal,’ and that they don’t mirror genuine face-to-face interaction. This has been especially true of anything that is digitally recorded.”
First and foremost, organizations moving their programs to virtual formats need to establish and maintain strong connections to their interns.
“They may be working alone, and they are not going to have the sense of community and culture that interns in an on-site internship would have,” Scott explains.
“To make an internship program work in a typical year, it has to be planned and executed intentionally and carefully. This is going to be even more critical in a virtual setting, but it can be done.”
Of course, the importance of virtual meetings has already increased tremendously during the coronavirus pandemic. To grow ties to interns, “plain old vanilla phone calls” are also solid tools. Scott says that students she has interviewed have discussed the importance of getting a phone call; they perceive such calls as an indication that they matter to the organization. Likewise, mentors will be vital resources for interns.
“The role of mentors in the virtual workplace will not be inherently different than it has been in an on-site internship setting, but the mentor has to be somebody the intern can trust as a ‘safe zone’ and help them navigate the organization, along with coaching them on the nuances of how work gets done in a virtual setting,” Scott says.
“Take all of the uncertainty that we are going through and add an order of magnitude to it for students, many of whom are participating in their first full work experience. Mentors can provide guidance and will have a very important responsibility in making sure these remote internships are successful.”
Organizations will also need to ensure that they have enough work for their interns to do and that they are keeping their interns fully engaged. In addition, Scott cautions employers not to assume that students know how to use business technology. Despite being “digital natives,” they may need a lot of hands-on guidance with proprietary software; the upside is that this can allow for professional development and skills training opportunities.
She saves her sharpest warning for organizations that are perceived to have the financial means and amount of work necessary to host an internship program this summer, but choose not to do so.
“For those of us who have significant experience in the profession, we have seen this movie before and we know how it ends,” Scott says.
“Granted, the circumstances with COVID-19 are truly uncharted territory and it is a brand new world for all of us, but there are some historical precedents we can look to, including the dot-com bust, 9/11, and the financial meltdown in 2008. Through it all, there were companies that pulled the plugs on their internship programs almost reflexively and two things happened: It destroyed their talent pipeline and it had a significant and negative impact on their brand.”
Scott adds that it is important to make a distinction between employers that cannot host their internship programs because of the coronavirus pandemic and those that choose not to host their internship programs.
“For example, when you hear that an airline has canceled its internship program, it makes sense to students,” she says.
“With travel bans and restrictions, there is nothing for interns to do there and everybody is going to understand that. The negative brand impact is going to hit employers for which it is not intuitively obvious that they cannot host their internship program.”
Students are sensitive to what they perceive to be the investment that employers make in them. Their “radar” is sharp, Scott says.
“It is amazing for me to see through my research how Gen Z values authenticity in ways that are not apparent to us,” she points out.
“The fact that they perceive that an employer is not investing in them in the recruiting process when they are fully able to do so is unacceptable for them. This is why the situation we are in is not one size fits all.
“Students’ perceptions are going to be affected by how employers handle this this crisis and it is not limited to rescinding offers, but involves how employers manage their programs by providing transparency and authenticity. It all comes down to how students are treated—and whether they feel respected and valued throughout. We are all learning as we go and, during this time, there will be an awful lot of opportunities for employers to falter or for employers to step up to the plate.”