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Don’t cancel summer internships – redesign them

Just as we quickly adapted to working from home, scheduling Zoom meetings instead of dinners with friends, and realising that trips to the grocery store are now the highlight of our social lives, we can also shift our approach to internships and placements.

Young graduates are digital natives who can easily adapt to remote internships. Photo: Nenad Stojkovic/Flickr

"We are all being challenged to rethink the way we interact, the way we live, and the way we work"

The COVID-19 outbreak has led to thousands of student placement cancellations across the globe. We are all being challenged to rethink the way we interact, the way we live, and the way we work.

The cancelling of these placements is no doubt a result of rapid changes in the labour market. Businesses in all sectors are being forced to reconsider their plans and adapt to what most are calling the “new normal, ” which undoubtedly includes tighter budgets and greater instability.

While a reduction in student hires is an understandable response, we believe there is an opportunity for post-secondary schools and companies to re-think placements instead of cancelling them.

Why is this important now?

For many students, the cancellation of these placements is about far more than disappointment. There are also long-term implications for their career ambitions and the entire labour market.

For many students, the cancellation of these placements is about far more than disappointment

If a student is underemployed when they graduate, they are likely to remain underemployed for 5 and even 10 years following graduation. Students graduating this year will be entering the greatest economic recession of our collective lifetime, and without access to the experience needed to land meaningful employment, we will all be feeling the consequences of this for years to come.

Working with employers on any of the following adaptations can be an excellent way to give them the security they need to bring on a student. While these options might not offer a full replacement for an in-person placement, students will still get valuable experience that will help them this summer, and for years to come.

• Consider doing placements virtually

Like the rest of life in the COVID-19 world, placements and internships can be virtual. Most students are digital natives and can easily adapt to remote work practices. Given their advanced knowledge of collaboration tools and technologies, they might even be able to help other employees transition to remote work more seamlessly.

• Turn a placement into a project with clear deliverables

Much of the feedback from employers has been around how they don’t have time to train students. Placements are too ambiguous and this gives employers the sense that they will have to do the heavy lifting to get the student ready to deliver value to the business. One alternative is to consider converting placements to projects with clear deliverables.

Technology has become the glue holding us together

Instead of hiring a full-time intern for your marketing team, why not do a short term student project that results in the development of a brand new communications plan?

• Leverage technology to help free up management and supervisory time

Technology has become the glue holding us together. There are many incredible tools out there for managing communication with virtual interns. Consider leveraging tools like Riipen which lets you connect to post-secondary institutions for project placements, manage the experience virtually, and give the students feedback – all on a single platform.

• Instead of hiring a single student intern, leverage a team

When hiring a new intern, you always face the risk that the person you bring onto your team might not be a great fit for the project. Given the increased need for flexibility, why not consider working with a team of people instead of just one?

Consider the possibility of working with a group of 4 students on a market insights project that would tell you how your business might need to change to thrive in the post-COVID economy. The diverse backgrounds of the team members will grant you a richer understanding of your challenges, and ensure you gain maximum value from your investment in emerging talent.

Adjusting to this “new normal” requires us all to rethink the way students and companies engage with each other. We encourage you to reconsider what work-integrated learning can look like and to let this time be a catalyst for embracing innovation.

Your openness to adapt will ensure students get the experiences they need to succeed this summer and beyond – and help your business as much as you help the students you hired.


Shawn Lestage is a member of Canada-based Riipen’s executive team, leading Riipen’s entry and expansion into the UK and EU. Prior to joining Riipen, Shawn was MD and co-founder of Future Project, a HE student recruitment consultancy that worked with 50+ partners based in the UK, US, and Australia.

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