The Pandemic’s Internship Interruption

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Last year, only 20% of college students participated in an internship, down from 60% the year before. Of those, nearly three-quarters were virtual. The internships that didn’t go online often got rescinded or students had to scramble to change plans. 

How has the pandemic’s internship interruption affected our students?

Dr. Andrew Crain, Director of Experiential Professional Development at The University of Georgia Graduate School, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss the student effects of the past year’s internship interruption and how higher ed can facilitate a strong and safe return of our workforce development partnerships this fall.

How the Pandemic Disrupted College Internships

Just how big were the shifts in the labor market last year? 

Small? Medium? Large?

Try “massive upheaval.”

The National Association for Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that more than 70% of summer 2020 internships went virtual. 

And the Center for Research on College to Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin just released a study that showed that only 22% of college students participated in an internship in 2020. Compare that to 60% participation pre pandemic.

You can see where the gap is showing up.

Why did employers struggle to migrate internships to remote settings?

Many employers may have wanted to make internships available remotely, but the challenges proved too great. 

You need to have appropriate work for the student, and tasks and experiences that give them exposure to what it’s like to be with that company. Interns require appropriate supervision and onboarding and all the legal and technical aspects that go into that. 

Internships require a lot of planning and forethought. 

Companies that were struggling to handle their current employees found it even more challenging to do this work for temporary interns. Consequently, a lot of employers decided to pause or scale down their internship programs. 

The Internship Interruption’s Negative Effects on Students

In the last few years, internships have become more and more important for students to market themselves.

Even though there’s a big demand for hiring right now, there’s also a lot of competition for those entry-level jobs. Employers know that we all just went through a pandemic, of course, and that this interruption happened. Probably most people reading a resume are willing to take that into account, but data suggests that 2021 graduates are competing with a backlog of talent from the class of 2020. 

Worse, research suggests that remote internship opportunities weren’t as effective as traditional internships in helping students network. In many cases, remote opportunities proved inaccessible to low-income students, racial minorities, and other groups that faced high barriers to begin with.

What the Data Suggests About the Future of Internships

Initial data from NACE suggests that many companies reduced the number of internships they offered or even pressed pause on their entire program. But here’s what’s interesting…the data also showed that the number of offers for interns was up and the number of conversions from interns into full-time hires was also up. 

Internships have grown increasingly competitive in terms of the recruitment process. Some companies spend 8 or 9 months recruiting for their internship programs. They may even court students for multiple years. The pandemic’s disruption flipped models that were 10-20 years in the making.

Add to that the phenomenon of “the great resignation” — lots of folks moving around now, even beyond the entry-level jobs. Talent management professions are scrambling to keep up. 

What will that mean for interns? 

The answer remains to be seen.

One more thing we do know, though, is that competition is heating up. In the past interns provided flexible talent. With more jobs going remote now, a larger talent pool is opening up for flex positions.

Next Steps on the Return to Student Internship Normalcy

Flexibility is going to be key. 

We may need to be even more adaptable than last year where we just did everything remotely. We may have to offer more hybrid recruitment and networking activities. The good news is that you can recruit and connect beyond your local market.

When students return to campus, an additional layer of support is something to think about. On many campuses, career offices are already stretched thin, but they may have higher-than-usual demands right now in terms of coaching students and alumni through this unusual landscape. These offices may also be coaching employers on engaging and connecting with the right partners on campus. 

So, be kind to those folks and support them wherever you can. 


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Andrew Crain of the University of Georgia. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.


If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.