College life in Philly

Virtual internships (which aren’t going away) can actually work really well, say Philly college students and employers

There’s no location barrier when it’s all remote — and being good at Zoom is now a vital workforce skill.

Office of Lu Ann Cahn, Temple University's Klein College Director of Career Services

Office of Lu Ann Cahn, Temple University's Klein College Director of Career Services

Courtney Murphy / Billy Penn

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Imagine having Oprah Winfrey pop into your Zoom session while you’re at work. That happened to Niccolas Uff recently, thanks to his internship at CBS News.

The Temple University junior is on his third apprenticeship stint with the network — all of them virtual. In summer 2020, the gig he’d first applied for was effectively canceled, replaced with a month-long series of workshops and webinars. When Uff was invited back for fall, he was able to get into the real work, helping book a-list celebs and national politicians for TV shows.

“I’m talking to the people at CBS just as much as I’d be talking to them in person,” Uff said about working remotely. “Actually, because of virtual, I get to talk to people that I wouldn’t have the chance to talk to, [like Oprah].”

Over a year after the pandemic hit, virtual internships still appear to be the primary option offered by U.S. companies, according to Billy Penn interviews with local career counselors and job postings on sites like Handshake, which features over 500,000 employers and is used across 1,100 universities and colleges nationwide.

Though interning remotely is a very different kind of experience, there are positives on both sides of the coin.

For students, there’s a convenience factor. There’s no need to relocate or commute, and remote work can provide flexibility with time. Last month, around 55% of students expressed interest in doing a virtual internship during their time in college, according to a survey by education journal Inside Higher Ed.

“A particular advantage of virtual experience is that you could be living in New York and interning in California,” said Mylene Karschener, a career counselor at the University of Pennsylvania.

For employers, virtual means there’s a larger pool of potential recruits. Plus, they can potentially save money because the interns wouldn’t use company space or utilities. Large corporations such as Google, NBC Universal, Walt Disney Company, and Bank of America are continuing to offer remote options for summer 2021.

In general, students have been surprised at how much they can get out of virtual internships, found the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) during a series of community conversations. Benefits have included honing remote work skills, which may be useful for years to come.

Remote interning holds value as long employers treat it with as much care and respect as in-person experiences, per NACE.

James Zeleniak, founder of Philadelphia food and beverage PR agency Punch Media, said he found it important to maintain constant communication with his interns when he pivoted his program to all-remote.

“You’re going to have a more authentic experience that way,” Zeleniak said. “Then the other thing is how can we involve the intern in specific clients.”

The Punch Media leadership team tasked their interns with sorting photos, writing blog posts, or condensing press releases for broadcast. Zeleniak noticed applicants coming from a much wider range of areas instead of just Philly, like Lancaster, Pa., New York City, or Washington D.C. He did not, however, notice an overall increase in how many people applied.

Intern hiring slightly declined this academic year, by 0.5%, per a NACE study. The same report found a 3% drop in hiring for co-ops, the term for a practical, hands-on, full-time work experience that’s included in the curriculum for some colleges, including Drexel University.

As vaccinations ramp up and companies explore bringing workers back to the office, there’s a potential middle ground. Dell Technologies launched what it calls a “Communities of Practice” model to over 2,000 interns, which has students gather in “pods” of two to four to tackle specific projects.

Barbara Hewitt, another UPenn career counselor, said she’s been helping many students apply for virtual positions. She’s optimistic the experience will be better than last summer, when 35% of U.S. college students saw their internships canceled.

“The positive thing is we’ve had a whole year of doing this,” Hewlett said. “I think they’ll be better run, ’cause we’ve had more time to get the technology down.”

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