The coronavirus pandemic forced college students off campus and into virtual classes this spring. Seniors skipped graduation or watched the ceremony through a computer screen.

This summer, many of those students will take their first steps into the professional workforce through remote internships with businesses in Williamson County.

Several local companies are integrating student interns into their remote workforce. Others have cancelled internships, or delayed them until regular employees can return to a physical office. A survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers estimated that 83% of employers plan to make changes to their summer internship programs.

For some companies, the spring semester proved to be a trial phase for remote internships. Three students in Columbia State Community College’s Computer Information and Technology started a 12-week internship at Tractor Supply in January. By the middle of March, almost all the employees at the company’s Brentwood headquarters, including interns, began working from home.

Deepa Janakiraman, the director of the Computer Information and Technology program, said the transition was successful and students were able to keep working on their projects.

“It went so smoothly, and the learning experience for these student has been on par with what it would have been in the on-the-ground environment,” she said.

The students met up with co-workers and mentors using Microsoft Teams. At the end of the semester, they presented the results of their work over a conference call.

Overall, the experiment worked well, but those spring semester students had a major advantage. They got to spend about five weeks in the office learning the ropes.

Last month, Tractor Supply launched a larger summer internship program that will be entirely remote. A group of 31 interns started working for the company in May.

The company spent a lot of effort studying how to create an online internship program, Tractor Supply’s Lindsay Zinser, who runs the internship program, wrote in an email. Like every other project these days, that meant watching video conference calls.

“Our departments broke down what they wanted their interns to accomplish and met with mentors and leadership to determine how it could be done remotely,” she wrote. “We attended several webinars on remote internships, which were quite helpful as well.”

Networking opportunities will become virtual get-togethers, and Tractor Supply has started a blog where interns are writing about their experiences.

“I had planned on living in Nashville, shaking hands with my fellow interns, and wearing my name badge as I stepped into the office each day,” intern Kaylee Pigott wrote on the intern blog. “However, I was thrown a curveball named COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted all my prior plans. I am now working from my childhood bedroom, catching up with fellow interns over video calls, and wearing PJ bottoms as I log into work each day.”

Zinser said that a virtual internship could be especially useful as many businesses — notably, big tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter — switch to a largely remote workforce for the long term.

“It has been important to show the interns the work they are doing is similar to the work everyone else is doing,” she wrote in an email. “Learning to be engaged while working remotely is a great skill for the future.”

Mars North America recently brought on about 100 interns who are all working remotely for the company’s locations in New Jersey, Chicago, St. Louis, Toronto and Franklin.

Mars’ University and Early Talent Lead Jill Godbout wrote in an email that the work interns perform over a 10-week internship this summer will look a lot like previous years, except they won’t be in the office and won’t meet with teams in person.

“This year, instead of leaning over and asking your manager who sits one desk over a question, you might have quick check-in meetings every morning and one longer, more formal 1:1 connect weekly,” Godbout wrote.

She said the virtual environment is also leading to some new benefits. Interns have easier access to senior leaders through quick video calls that can easily fit into busy schedules. Godbout said the company may incorporate some of the best components of a virtual internship into future, in-person internship programs.

Traditionally, networking is an important part of the intern experience. In a remote program, Godbout said interns need to be intentional about building that network.

“In the world of remote working, we can’t rely on opportunistic office encounters with our peers — we need to actively schedule meet and greets and make an effort to connect with others,” she wrote in an email.

Other companies are taking a different approach. Nissan has canceled its internship program for the summer. The Brentwood-based accounting and consulting firm LBMC is delaying the start of its internship program until full-time employees can come back to the office in late June.

LBMC Chief People Officer Michelle Endres said that in a highly technical field like accounting, it’s difficult to fully train interns remotely.

“They would not have gotten the depth of the experience because it would have been more project based,” she said. “We didn't want to short change our interns by cutting it down to a project ... We did not want to water down their experience. This is the start of our pipeline of talent.”

Godbout said it’s clear that remote work requires new skills and attitudes for interns at Mars. Student have had to be proactive in seeking out solutions to problems and asking for guidance when needed.

“Remote working requires self-motivation and drive. There’s no one there to keep track of what you’re accomplishing,” she wrote in an email.

Janakiraman said Columbia State Community College’s Computer Information and Technology is already teaching students how to work successfully in a remote environment. Many of the program’s graduates find work at tech companies where remote work was already common. She said the college’s online classes give students a test of a virtual work environment before they leave.

“More discipline is required when you work from home, as opposed to a physical environment. We teach that in our online learning platform,” she said. “Students are more responsible for themselves in an online learning environment. Students are responsible for keeping up their deadlines.”

If the shift to remote work following the coronavirus pandemic has lasting effects, then those types of skills will become critical for interns or entry level employees joining a new company.

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