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How the Pandemic Has Changed HR Internships

A woman working on a laptop in her home office.

An internship is typically one of the most significant steps that an aspiring human resource professional can take on their career path. They provide HR students with the opportunity to see what the prospective job entails and can potentially lead to full-time employment after graduation. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the outlook for internships in a number of ways.

Internship 2.0

When the pandemic first began, many companies cut back on internships. HR managers said it's difficult to show someone the ropes when they aren't physically in the office. Additionally, many organizations were in survival mode, and teaching prospective employees the basics of the business wasn't a priority.

"We know that a lot of employers cut back on internship programs because at the time, they couldn't take people in person," noted Casey Welch, CEO of Tallo, an online platform that connects college students with career opportunities. "That's how a lot of internships were designed."

Eventually, many organizations restarted internships in an online capacity. But employers first had to ensure that they had the technology and the overall infrastructure in place to support them. "That's what we saw with a lot of our employers. Some of them pulled back on [internships] because they were trying to figure out how they should reshape them in this new world going forward," Welch said. "They had to make sure of the experience that you would gain if you have internships in a remote setting."

The remote working environment has also prompted companies to rethink the timing of internships; many are now being held during the school year. "The traditional internship has always been over the summer break when no school was in session," said Jonathan Gonzalez, global immigration and mobility analyst for Neustar Inc. in Sterling, Va., and co-director of college relations and emerging professionals for the Virginia SHRM State Council. "But you've begun to see some employers be much more flexible with their work schedules because everybody's online anyway. So they've enabled students that have been able to take internships [during the school year]."

Internships have also proved advantageous for companies that need some extra help but can't afford to take on new staff or hire a temp. "It's a win-win," Gonzalez said. "The company doesn't have to invest large-scale amounts of money into a new hire, and the student gets the learning experience, even while they're still doing online classes."

Finding Internships

But even if companies are reassessing their capabilities and relaunching internship programs, young and emerging HR professionals still may find themselves unable to attain one. That's because even in normal times, HR internships can be hard to come by.

Ren'ee A. Mangini, SHRM-SCP, HR professor and department chair for HR at Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland, Wash., and a SHRM student chapter advisor, explained that there are some different factors at play with this issue. For instance, HR handles sensitive, personal data on employees, so there may be limitations on what an intern can do. Additionally, HR departments may not feel they have the free time to bring on an intern.

"Sometimes HR departments think they are too busy to take on an intern and show them everything," she said. "But I don't think they have to show them as much as they think they do. A lot of it's a barrier in our HR mindset, which I'd love to be able to change."

Ashley Dugger, DBA, SHRM-CP, program chair of human resource management for Western Governors University in Salt Lake City, Utah, has also observed HR students having difficulty finding internships. "Our career services department posts anytime they have an internship, whether it's in person or virtual if it's available, because they do seem to be pretty few and far between," she said. "The other challenge to that is, particularly for non-traditional students who are already working full time and may have family, adding on a separate internship piece could be very difficult."

Dugger, who has a background in the nonprofit sector, advises students to instead reach out to local nonprofits and see if they might have some HR-related volunteer work that could be done in place of an internship. "They might let you help put together a handbook, revamp their recruiting process, or do some training and development to get some experience on your resume," she said. "You could also check with some small business owners who might need some support. And if you're already working, check with your HR department to see if there are special projects that maybe you could help with."


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