‘It was a bit of a shock’: Pandemic upends promising internships for college students

Tribune Content Agency

MINNEAPOLIS — Leif Kutschera spent what seemed like countless hours applying for a 15-month internship in Denmark that he hoped would kick-start his Scandinavian interior-design career.

Weeks later, the 22-year old University of Minnesota senior clicked on an e-mail that told him he had been accepted. His job for the next year was set and he could now focus on finishing up his degree. “I just felt like my life could really be impacted by this,” he said.

Last month, as COVID-19 upended economies across the globe and tens of millions of workers were losing their jobs, a worried Kutschera braced for another e-mail from Denmark. It came. His internship had been canceled.

“It was a bit of a shock,” he said. His Plan B is unclear. “I just don’t want to make big plans right now,” he said.

College students across the country have had their carefully planned internships uprooted in recent weeks as the threat of COVID-19 has closed businesses and forced others to slash budgets and operate from makeshift remote offices. Companies that have pushed ahead with their programs have shifted to shorter, virtual internships with hopes that participants will manage to have engaging experiences.

Summer internships are coveted opportunities for students and other inexperienced workers to get a foot in the door at prospective employers. For companies, internships are an important recruitment tool. With internships temporarily on hiatus or switched to a remote format, it’s unclear how the changes will affect regional recruitment and students’ careers long term.

For Amy Zhou, a University of Minnesota junior studying political science, COVID-19 has dealt her a double setback. Her study abroad program in Shanghai was suspended before it started in January due to the outbreak. Next, her summer internship for a racial equity nonprofit in Oakland, Calif., was canceled.

“My immediate reaction was, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is happening again.’ Zhou said when she found out about the nixed summer stint. “(For) the past like four months … coronavirus was affected me in a lot of like very atypical ways.”

Zhou wants to work in government and public policy, and her summer experience was supposed to be an opportunity to live in both a racially diverse area in California and connect her with her Asian-American roots in China.

But with her plans for a summer position changed, Zhou’s path forward now looks different. She plans to take summer classes online and to graduate in December, instead of next spring.

For University of Minnesota junior Audrey Showers, the cancellation of her summer internship as a sales intern at Toro means far less real-world experience in her majors of marketing and entrepreneurial management. The bad news came in a short phone call. Now, Showers, 20, is worried the setback will affect her prospects for a job after graduation and is hoping employers will be understanding given the unprecedented times. “I’m just kind of scrambling for straws at this point,” she said.

Many local companies and nonprofit organizations have canceled their internship programs, some for larger business reasons and others because of logistics. They include coveted internship destinations like Best Buy, which recently announced it had to furlough about 40% of its workforce

But others are plowing ahead, but with big changes. Matt Lewis, vice president of strategic initiatives for regional promoter Greater MSP, said less than a quarter of the large employers that his organization partners with have canceled their internships. Most have converted to virtual programs.

“The theme right now is not elimination,” Lewis said, “it’s adaptation.”

Some of the major companies that have continued their internships in some fashion include Target, U.S. Bank, Thrivent Financial, Medtronic and General Mills.

Many companies have shortened their internships into “micro-internships” or made them more project-based to make it easier for interns to work remotely, he said. Interns are an important way to attract job seekers to companies and also to the region, but it is unclear how the current crisis will affect how many actually decide to eventually work for Minnesota companies, Lewis said.

Financial services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has shortened its national internship program from two months to most interns working remotely for two weeks. Most of the close to 4,000 interns are college undergraduates who would graduate in a year. PwC Minneapolis, which has around 600 employees, will host about 45 interns this summer virtually.

“The hands-on experience they normally get with clients, we won’t be able to replicate that. … That was the really hard decision that we needed to make,” said Rod Adams, national recruitment leader for PwC.

But PwC’s interns appear to have caught a break. For the first time, PwC has offered full-time jobs to all of its undergrad interns before their summer stint at the firm.

“We feel very good about the strength and quality of this group,” Adams said.

Minneapolis marketing agency Solve decided to embrace the quirkiness of hosting a virtual internship by creating the #Don’tMoveToMinnesota campaign

In less than a week, Solve received nearly 300 applications from all over the United States as well as from countries such as India and China. Solve CEO John Colasanti is hopeful the program will be even better than in the past.

“It’s not easy to get inside of the business at any time,” Colasanti said. “We feel like it’s our responsibility. It’s our duty (to continue the internship program) and even though times are tough, that’s something that we don’t want to give up at this point.”

Caitlin Anderson (caitlin.anderson@startribune.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.


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