With summer just around the corner, many college students should be preparing to start internships. But this year, with in-person classes and sports sidelined, many internship programs are also being cancelled. Those companies still going forward with internship programs are going virtual.

Insurance provider Humana, news organizations including NPR and Slate, and tech giants including Google, IBM, Microsoft and SAP are all planning on virtual internships this summer. Even companies that had little experience with remote work until the novel coronavirus pandemic this year are adapting to the idea of virtual or online internship programs. According to a report from Government Executive, many defense contractors are still looking for qualified interns, who will work remotely.

Northrop Grumman will still have about 3,000 interns in its summer program, Lockheed Martin will have 2,600, Boeing, 1,450, L3Harris Technologies, 750, and General Dynamics Mission Systems, a business unit of General Dynamics, about 230.

Internships are important, as many lead to full-time jobs. As many as 75% of Lockheed Martin’s interns and 60% of General Dynamics Mission Systems’ interns will become full-time employees.

The Changing Internship

The concept of a virtual internship isn’t new. Columbia University reportedly offered the first virtual internship program in 2009.

For many firms that allow employees to telework, virtual internships have been a part of it. Instead of giving the intern a desk in the corner, employers communicate with the interns via emails, video chat, instant messaging, text messaging and of course the good old phone. For today’s college students – who are now in the Generation Z demographic – the idea of communicating via message or text isn’t novel, it is already how they communicate daily with friends, family and colleagues. Likewise, many students are used to instruction via video chat and/or take classes online.

Lockheed Martin, which recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic would disrupt its internship program, overhauled it. The company is now using Zoom and Slack software to establish connectivity with its interns. Boeing has reportedly hosted virtual airplane tours and other computer-based events for its interns. Northrop has scheduled regular webcasts with its executives, which allows interns to feel connected with the company.

Pros and Cons of Virtual Internships

There are a number of benefits from virtual internships, including flexibility and being able to draw from a larger talent tool.

Since the majority of internships are still unpaid, virtual internships can allow for greater flexibility even in more “normal” times. For one, students are better able to obtain part-time paid summer jobs while still completing their internship tasks. Alternatively students could take classes while still interning, which also means that internship programs are not just limited to summer or winter breaks.

In addition students don’t have to live in the same metropolitan area as the employer offering the internship. And instead of just spending time at the photocopier, virtual internships often let the student jump deeper into projects. This is especially true for those with software and programming skills as well as IT/cybersecurity skills. Instead of busy work in the early days interns can be “doing” actual work from the get go.

However, there are downsides to virtual internship programs as well, both for the employer and the interns. The biggest downside is that the student intern doesn’t get to experience the office environment, including being able to learn successful work behaviors that include office etiquette, corporate culture and just the simple ability to experience life in a professional setting.

Interns who spend the summer at their computer – possibly in shorts and a t-shirt – could be less prepared for that office job down the line. More importantly, fewer interactions can mean that interns miss out on valuable networking opportunities with other interns as well as full-time employees.

The biggest problem is that there can be little-to-no training, but that can depend more on the employer. Virtual internships can also lack the necessary elements required in order to be classified as an internship – which can be a downside if the internship is unpaid and the student can’t even get credit for it.

However, these are still the early days in what could be a new summer norm: the virtual and/or remote internship.

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.