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Updated: June 2, 2020

COVID-19 upends summer internship programs

Photo | Contributed College students interning at CVS’ Aetna business unit in Hartford this summer will be working remotely.

Everything went smoothly for Nate Carr earlier this year when he applied for a summer internship at Travelers Cos. Inc. in Hartford.

The senior University of Hartford economics major interviewed for the property-and-casualty insurer’s business analytics internship in January, and was notified soon after that he’d been selected for the position.

But then the coronavirus pandemic swept through the state in mid-March, about 2 ½ months before the internship’s June 2 start date.

“I was worried that everything was going to be canceled,” said Carr. “Health and safety comes first, but obviously you want an internship experience. … It seemed like a great fit, this is something I’ve wanted to do for a while.”

Thankfully for Carr, he won’t have to miss out completely on his paid learning experience. He’ll still work the 10-week internship, which mostly involves analyzing product effectiveness with Travelers’ product development team, but it will be completed 100% digitally.

Each year college students — particularly juniors and seniors — participate in internships to complete graduation requirements, learn real-world job skills and form professional relationships that could land them jobs after college. But COVID-19 has upended these annual programs as schools and businesses use social distancing and work-from-home measures to avoid creating clusters of disease contraction.

In response, colleges have relaxed internship requirements and helped students find digital internships, while employers have moved internship programs online or canceled them until the return of more certain times.

CVS Health’s 304 summer interns — 100 of whom would have worked out of the Rhode Island-based pharmacy giant’s Hartford Aetna campus — will do everything online this year from completing assignments to engaging in social get-togethers and networking activities, said CVS Vice President of Talent Acquisition Jeffrey Lackey. Interns will work across CVS’ 22 businesses, including at health insurer Aetna, which CVS acquired in 2018 for $69 billion.

“There’s just too much technology and too much capability to turn our backs on a great group [of interns],” Lackey said, noting that CVS usually hires about two-thirds of its summer interns each year for full-time positions. “We can’t afford to miss a year of 304 people who will be the future of CVS.”

Technology CVS interns will use to complete assignments and stay connected will vary depending on their position; data analytics interns will use programming language Python, while pharmacy operations interns will use more Microsoft Office applications. But throughout the 10-week program, CVS will offer virtual group meetings and one-on-one conferences between interns and CVS employees in their field, Lackey said.

Additionally, CVS is advising interns to join one of the company’s colleague resource groups, which represent different professional, cultural and personal interests — including the Black Colleague Resource Group; Pride+, an LGBT group; and about a dozen others.

In some ways the increased attention to making sure interns engage with employees and make connections could work in interns’ favor, since company officials will make a more concerted effort to make themselves available, Lackey said.

“I think in some ways it won’t be the same,” Lackey said. “But in some aspects it might be a richer experience.”

Joe Gianni, Hartford Market President, Bank of America

Joe Gianni, Bank of America’s Hartford market president, also said the move to digital internships this summer could actually increase participants’ access to higher-ups in the company.

The bank’s summer internship program plans aren’t yet cemented, Gianni said, but the all-digital format will likely require a lot of trouble shooting and alterations in real time.

“We’ll be learning as each month goes by, as each week goes by,” Gianni said.

Disappointing reality

But not all businesses have been able to move their internship programs online, and students are looking to college career coordinators for answers.

Kevin Sweeney, Assistant Dean of Collaborative Initiatives, University of Hartford’s Barney School of Business

Kevin Sweeney, assistant dean of collaborative initiatives at the University of Hartford’s Barney School of Business, said internships were canceled for about 80% of his students who had secured one this summer.

“I think it’s fair to say there are larger organizations that are moving online, but for students who aren’t at the larger firms, there’s been a significant impact,” said Sweeney, who added that about 100 UHart business school students participate in internships each summer. “If you’re furloughing employees, you’re not really in a position to consider having temporary summer employees.”

As part of UHart’s summer 2020 Remote Internship & Experiential Opportunity program, Sweeney will work with students to find an internship that can be completed remotely through organizations like CAPA: The Global Education Network; Upper Albany Main Street Inc.; and the Women’s Business Center.

Matt Caporale, Career Center Executive Director, University of New Haven

At the University of New Haven, only about a third of the usual 300-or-so students who participate in summer internships annually are currently registered for one, said Matt Caporale, executive director of the university’s career center.

Part of the problem is that about 40% of UNH students are in forensic science or criminal justice programs, Caporale said, and internships in those fields are often hands-on and offered by police departments and crime labs staring down the barrel of possibly reduced funding.

UNH is working with students whose internships were canceled, or who had difficulty finding one amid COVID-19 shutdowns, Caporale said. But administrators are also being realistic about the fact that some students simply won’t be able to complete an internship — a requirement for graduation — by their scheduled commencement date.

“We’re being a little more flexible this year,” Caporale said. “We’re taking the stance that we’re not going to penalize students for something that’s not their fault.”

Carr, the UHart pupil doing a digital internship with Travelers this summer, is glad he’s not among those whose internships were scrapped completely — although, he acknowledges, his experience will be different.

“In all honesty, it is disappointing, because I really do enjoy meeting people in person … and having that real social factor,” Carr said. But, he said, Travelers officials have been great in a difficult situation, and assured him he will get the best possible internship experience.

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