There’s a new buzz in the internship field: the virtual internship.
The onset of the global pandemic in 2020 ushered in the era of virtual work and education, with employers, employees, and students across the globe rushing to adapt to the new mode of interaction. As we adjusted to pandemic life, we came to appreciate the advantages of working from home, including comfort, flexible schedules, and more time back in our day. With that, virtual internships offer an attractive alternative to traditional internship models, with more students interested in a hybrid internship than an in-person program.
Readjusting to the possibility of in-person meetings and courses, many people are hesitant to return to their offices and schools. The number of students now engaged in online learning is greater than pre-pandemic levels. Specifically, according to WeForum, “In 2016, 21 million students registered for Coursera’s online courses, a number that increased annually by around 7 million over the next two years. But the switch to remote working as the pandemic hit triggered a three-fold increase in new registrations, bringing the figure to 71 million in 2020, and 92 million in 2021.”
72% of workers are keen to work through a hybrid approach, yet some people still prefer in-person interactions for work and school, hence the push across sectors for hybrid work weeks. With a few days at home and a few days in the office, this schedule tries to strike a balance between the WFH camp and the extroverts. It also addresses employer concerns about maintaining productivity and team engagement.
A survey by Upwork of 1,500 hiring managers found that “[p]re-pandemic, businesses expected that in five years 38% of their remote workforce would be fully remote, while today they expect 58% to be fully remote in five years.”
Virtual internships are new, so of course, there is a debate about whether or not they are as effective and rewarding as prior in-person internships. Do interns get as much out of their experience if their feet aren’t on the ground? Is a crucial element of the intern-learning process lost without a change in environment?
Virtual internships are more than a lifeline back to the pre-pandemic staple that guided recent grads into the job market for years. They offer unique skills on their own and are a valuable opportunity to demonstrate your capacity to future employers. They also open the door to interning year-round – without the requirement of travel, interns don’t have to wait until summer break to take on the new experience.
Moreover, they offer a chance for companies to tap into a vast pool of talent from around the globe. Interns have the opportunity to engage with companies regardless of geographic location, working across time zones and continents. Studies show that virtual internship programs also can increase the diversity of organizations by allowing them access to a vast array of candidates.
On the other hand, many people contend that there’s a lot to be gained from having your feet on the ground in an internship, an advantage that is lost through the virtual format. “I love working with people rather than sitting in an air-conditioned room and doing everything virtually,” says Abha Jaiswal, Resident Director in India for NEXSTEP and Experiential Learning Specialist, “Technology can’t replace the human touch.” Although Abha recognizes the necessity of virtual internships in our current climate, she prefers experiential learning.
“Students learn by experiencing. When you experience […] you don’t forget anything,” says Abha. Like many proponents of in-person internships, Abha sees the benefits of experiential learning as extending far beyond the program contents itself. “[In-person internships give] you so much more than you would get from online. [There is] an inside element, a cultural side of experiential learning. It makes a mark on your personality and it helps you grow in a different way.”
Jérôme Le Carrou, the founder of NEXSTEP, believes that both virtual and in-person internship programs have certain benefits. “There are benefits that in-person internships offer, such as the whole sensory experience. When you travel overseas, the smell, the touch, what you see […] all that connects you on a personal level to the experience,” shares Jérôme. He believes that on-the-ground internships offer larger exposure to your host culture than interns gain through virtual programs, with the chance to participate in local life beyond the daily confines of the office, “You become aware of so much more.”
“However, virtual internships allow you to focus on the task, the objective, the production, of your work,” continues Jérôme. They encourage interns to be independent, allowing them to work anywhere, anytime. Virtual options “bring the whole world together in one space, offering exponential value in terms of connection,” shares Jérôme.
He stresses the importance of being at the top of your game for virtual internships, as there is less buffer zone of socialization outside of work time. “Your ability to connect, to be able to perform must be strong. In the office, these skills might be a bit more latent, but virtual, you must be really focused on upskilling.”
In the future, Jérôme foresees an increased focus on community learning and collaboration within the virtual sphere, as well as the incorporation of newer technologies such as VR. He hopes that programs offering internship experiences will continue to work to make the transition from university to professional life seamless by incorporating technology and more peer-to-peer learning with mentorship to help bridge this divide. He foresees this gaining greater emphasis alongside the importance of professionals learning to work in sync with new tech such as ChatGTP, recognizing their human value.