Only 22% of college students took an internship, half were in-person positions, and quality indicators for online internships were low, according to a new study conducted by the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison).
“The pandemic clearly impacted students’ lives, in general,” says Matthew T. Hora, CCWT director and assistant professor of adult and higher education in the Division of Continuing Studies at UW-Madison.
“Most of the students we spoke with were struggling in some fashion, whether it was finances, mental health, physical health, or other. The pandemic also had a negative impact on the world of internships, at large. There were added negative elements with online internships, given problems with technology, such as insufficient internet access, old equipment, communication problems with supervisors, and more.”
For “Exploring Online Internships Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020,” the CCWT team conducted a multi-site case study that included analysis of survey data of 9,964 students from 11 colleges and universities, surveys and interview data from two online internship networking platforms (OINPs), and a case study of one employer’s online internship program. The survey was conducted between November 2020 and March 2021.
Key findings from the study include:
- Internship participation in the study sample during the pandemic was very low—only about one out of five students—and interns were split 50-50 between in-person and online positions, despite conventional wisdom that all internships had moved online.
- OINPs play an important role in the ecosystem of internships, but demand far outstripped available positions for students.
- Online interns in the study were more likely to be continuing-generation, have higher GPAs, come from upper-income families, and be non-STEM majors than in-person interns.
- Online interns in the study reported lower satisfaction, career and academic developmental value, 21st-century skills development, network development, and high-skill tasks than in-person interns.
Additionally and of particular note is the fact that the research found that more online positions (42%) than in-person positions (34.9%) were unpaid.
“If we take compensation as one of the primary equity-related issues, in our sample, online internships do not appear to be solving the access and equity problem,” Hora says.
“While our sample is not representative, this result is still problematic. It’s a problem in the world of internships at large.”
Hora says that finding out why more online internships were unpaid is the first hurdle with respect to equity.
“The second one,” he adds, “is the potential or promise of online experiences breaking down the barriers of students who are either working, can’t commit to normal workday hours, can’t relocate to an expensive city, or have other limitations.
“The fact that students who took online internships were not more low-income or first generation is an indication that this isn’t the sea change that we expected. We anticipated that online positions may open the floodgates for students who, before, weren’t able to take these out-of-reach experiences. That wasn’t the case.”
That said, these data were collected during a worldwide pandemic that impacted business and life on every level. The shift to virtual internships was necessarily swift.
“It is hard to tease out the pandemic,” Hora notes.
“We collected data in the middle of what was, hopefully, a one-in-a-lifetime global event. The flexibility was key. When students’ classes and internships were being cancelled, and the world was shutting down, the fact that so many were still able to do an internship was remarkable. It was an essential bridge for many students. It also allowed employers to maintain, in some form, their recruiting pipeline.”
He commends the savviness of employers in the ways they created for interns to interact with one another and communicate with supervisors.
“However,” Hora continues, “I think it’s near impossible to replicate what some students are looking for, which is that social engagement with the workplace. We can try, and I know there are people working on virtual reality simulations of authentic workplace tasks that are not necessarily for internships, but rather just for learning. People are trying to come up with digital solutions to that, but I don’t think we can because there’s a social and cultural element to being immersed into a new workplace and occupation.”
Some employers told Hora that a good deal of their work is virtual and, even before the pandemic, members of their project teams were dispersed around the world.
“There’s not just one model of a workplace that’s only in person because that’s clearly not the reality,” Hora points out.
“In the case of young people, they’re new to a profession. To have their introduction to a profession be virtual is very challenging.”
Hora and his team recommend that employers develop online internships in the future with greater attention to task design, supervision, and communication.
“This goes to in-person internships, but I think it’s even more important for online because you don’t have that immediate interaction between intern and supervisor where they can troubleshoot,” Hora says.
“Employers and, to a certain degree, colleges need to think about designing their interns’ projects with the same care and attention that a college professor designs their courses. It’s not just bringing in an intern and throwing them whatever project is in the queue. They need to be intentional about the nature of the task, how the intern can be integrated in a substantive fashion, how much autonomy they have, how the supervisor is trained, the tools and resources that are available to the intern, and more. Many employers already do this, but many others do not.”
The research team says support services and training should be provided to employers and postsecondary institutions to improve how online internships are designed and implemented.
“While remote work and online internships will remain a reality for many professions and sectors, it is clear that colleges and universities need to work with employers to ensure that they are as effective learning experiences as in-person positions,” Hora says.
“Until then, the online internship should be viewed with caution as a form of experiential learning—one with great potential to reach thousands of students unable to take an in-person position, but something that is clearly a work in progress.”