While virtual internships are essential in the current work environment, it is important to recognize that many benefits of a traditional internship are lost when internships are done online, says Matthew Hora.
Hora, director of the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that interns who participate in virtual internships may lose the opportunity to develop key “soft skills” and competencies.
“They miss out on the chance to understand professional cultures, subtle behavioral norms, ways of communicating, and interacting with other people, and more,” Hora says.
“A lot of these are best picked up when the intern is in an actual work environment. Through an online internship, a student would be immersed in an actual task and would be closely mentored by someone, but the student is still going to miss out on gaining some of the ‘soft skills’ by not being physically and socially immersed in a professional setting.”
In addition, employers may believe that virtual interns did not develop the soft skills and competencies necessary to be successful in the traditional workplace.
Hora—who has written What To Do About Internships in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic?—says that another one of the biggest potential losses for virtual interns is professional networking.
“A good deal of this professional networking happens in the hallway, at the water cooler, or post-workday over dinner,” he explains.
“Interns on site meet people who could be influential in their future. Not only can they share information about job leads and more, but contacts in a student’s professional network can also confer their credibility or reputation on the intern just by talking to the intern and offering advice. Unless there is some deliberate cultivation of networks by the intern host or the student’s college, professional networking could also be lost in a virtual program.”
Hora suggests that without accounting for the loss of opportunities to develop these skills in the virtual workspace, students may not be fully prepared to succeed when they enter the work force.
“There is also the danger of normalizing ‘gig’ or contract labor, whereby firms contract work out to online interns instead of hiring full-time employees,” says Hora.
“In some of these companies, gig workers are not considered employees, so they do not get any employee benefits or protections. [These employers are] clearly filling a niche because students are in high demand, but if students are entering into gig work arrangements, they are not going to have the protections that are especially important to them in the early phases in their career.”
Hora recommends that employers take the time to help interns develop their career readiness competencies.
“They should work with their interns, cultivate their experiences, and help them acquire many skills as possible,” he says.
“Employers should find opportunities to help these young people develop their confidence and skills to advance their career goals.”