Manager Post: Pivoting Internship Opportunities in the Time of COVID-19

Updated: September 2, 2020


By Cynthia Bellian
Product Marketing Manager
I’m one of the dozen hiring managers for internships at a single business unit of a global leader in the financial services industry. Our organization offers payments processing and other services, and my division fits in the FinTech category segment, specializing in services essential for fraud mitigation and secure e-commerce transactions. We have locations on six continents.

We started recruiting interns in early February. We posted openings online and attended career fairs at a handful of colleges and universities in the region. By mid-March, we had already conducted phone screenings and on-site interviews for the season. If on-site travel was not feasible, we arranged video conferencing interviews.

When the pandemic was declared, we had just extended offer letters to about a dozen interns. Despite the emerging adverse effects of COVID-19 on business, our leadership approved us to continue and complete our internship plans, but with some modifications to the program for summer 2020. This was possible due to management’s commitment as part of business continuity plans and healthy financial reserves.

We were prepared to navigate the economic uncertainties ahead with a scaled-back version of the program. This meant that our dozen interns could still join our organization for the summer.

About our internship program during COVID-19

Our internship program allows the company to offer meaningful work and networking experiences for interns. Interns work beside other entry-level, mid-career, or late-career colleagues and managers. They work with computer engineers, software developers, sales and customer support, marketing communications, branding, UI/UX graphics designers product marketing, and marketing research. Our recruiting process is efficient, using recruiting and application software platforms to automate and organize the workflows. Hiring managers are given guidance and tools for effective screening and interviewing. We focus on behavioral interviews to help determine a good match for the skills and experience needed. As a group, it took us just seven weeks to prepare and post job descriptions/requirements, screen hundreds of applicants, do phone interviews and on-site interviews, and extend 12 offers.

This year, we shortened the duration of our internship assignments from 12 weeks to eight weeks. Then, we redesigned the nature of interns’ work projects to accommodate a phased-in or blended mix of remote and on-site interactions. Except for essential roles at our offices, our employees had been working remotely since mid-March. With most of us now working from home, we’ve shifted from gatherings to virtual meetings; what had been regularly scheduled stand-up meetings in Agile Teams are now done through WebEx or Google Meet. We also leverage our Slack channel for impromptu and scheduled phone calls and video conferencing. All of our interns will have accounts on these communications platforms while we remain in WFH mode.

A few weeks ago, our IT team prepared to provide and ship laptops to our interns so they could commence the credentialing and onboarding processes from their homes. In previous years, interns started their assignments with us on the third week in May, staying on through mid-August. What had been intended as an immersion week at our offices now required creativity and technology to connect the remote members of the team. The summer cohort will be going through these immersion training sessions using online technology, including a blended LMS (learning management system) platform and synchronous virtual meetings. As authorities ease up restrictions for restarting the economy, we anticipate transitioning to blended remote and on-site assignments, which would allow some of the traditional internship experiences. However, for those interns who do not reside in the area but had planned to relocate for the summer, the entire program will be a remote experience.

During other summers, our interns participated in Corporate Challenge events, competing with other businesses and organizations in the region. They interacted with teams and management from different departments on projects, during conference meetings, and through social gatherings. We also had cohort bonding activities and assigned each intern a non-supervisor buddy as an informal resource to provide support. Now, we’ve been holding non-project virtual happy hours and group chats every other Friday, where we socialize and share how our day or week went. We’ve been making it interesting by showcasing a personal talent, dressing up in a fun way, or showing our favorite green-screen background. A colleague who’s in a heavy metal band performed a number during one of those social events. Our VP dressed up in her wedding dress for the party, too! We even had a retirement party farewell on Cinco de Mayo; I saw a bunch of sombreros on the screen that day. By participating in these virtual events, our interns will get to experience our fun culture. When we’ve made safe plans to return to the office, we plan to have appropriately physically distanced arrangements for on-site small group lunch meetings and other safe activities.

Typically, interns get hired to open positions in the company upon completing their academic degree. Now, there is a near-term freeze on adding staff, but if an intern performs well and is qualified they will definitely have an edge and be a top candidate when the hiring freeze ends. I currently work with several colleagues who worked their way up from an internship to a permanent role.

What I look for in interns

I jumped at the chance to have an intern assigned to me. It was an opportunity for me to share my professional passions, develop coaching and supervisory skills, and get some extra help to accelerate progress on key projects. As Product Marketing Manager, I am focused on initiatives around informed decision-making, using insights on the competitive landscape. So, I needed data gathering, marketing research, and analysis skills and experience. I looked for students that had exposure to marketing research projects, customer journey mapping, data analysis, and even psychology. Plus, I was looking for reverse-mentoring opportunities from young talent with experience in areas with which I was unfamiliar, such as new tools in data science and visualization software like Tableau.

There were about two dozen applicants for my posting over the four weeks it was open. In my selection process, I was able to quickly separate half of the applicants as viable candidates to consider based on their resumes, with a focus on relevant coursework, projects, and other work experience. I paid careful attention to the extracurricular section to gain an expanded view of their personalities and interests and how they would align with our team. Some of the desirable qualities and characteristics included curiosity, ability to organize disparate data to find trends and patterns that help reveal the story of situations and conditions, and a can-do attitude. I want someone on my team who demonstrates initiative and independence to accomplish goals and wants to make a strong contribution. Additionally, I want them to help me grow and teach me new things.

Tips and advice for interns today

For students who have lost internships, I offer words of encouragement, as well as some tips and advice. I have so much compassion for you during this difficult time. It is a disheartening period for eager, talented young people to go through such hardship and disappointments. I call on you to persevere and find hope in channeling your energies and talents to creating new opportunities. I’m a big fan of entrepreneurship, even during downturns; find a way to solve common problems, given the state of the economy, and create your own destiny.

Other ways to invest in yourself include acquiring more skills that can be parlayed in future roles. For example, I consider speed reading to be a superpower. Many professions require us to acquire and absorb a lot of information. Improving comprehension, speed, and memory retention during this time can benefit you for a lifetime. I have taken online speed reading courses to help me discover ideas and concepts that I can apply in other domains.

Although it may not be a paid position, non-profit organizations may be a good route to gain valuable work experience. These institutions can always use extra help and need the same kind of talent as businesses and companies, so find a role that will allow you to apply your skills with these teams.

Leverage your network to expand your search and let everyone know what you’re trying to accomplish. Ask for help to find possible roles. Give your resume a makeover to highlight key accomplishments and strengths you provide. Prepare well for interviews by researching the organization so you can ask good questions that help you really understand and get to know their culture and management style to determine whether it will be a good fit. Be authentic, honest, and genuine in sharing who you are, your intentions, and what you bring to the table.   Never give up lest you miss the right opportunity.

Best wishes to all of you in your career and future endeavors.