Summer jobs and internships can play a valuable role in a student’s transition from college to life after school. Such experiences offer students the opportunity to establish connections, develop valuable skills and gain exposure in specific career fields. But what does all of this look like during a period of transitioning out of a pandemic? How does this change the future of internships and summer employment for college students?
In the process of applying to summer internships, jobs and research positions during winter break, I watched as many of them were moved online — or worse, cancelled — given the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was initially thrilled with the prospect of working online, which would give me flexibility location-wise so long as I still got work done. I also felt as though continuing to work online seemed fitting following a year of remote work and schooling.
I wasn’t the only one seeking online opportunities, however. It was intimidating to compete against hundreds of applicants across the U.S. for these positions. I heard back from an in-person opportunity located in Japan, but it quickly moved online and became part-time. I decided that the extreme time difference wasn’t worth it given the limited hours, so I continued with the job hunt, a process that filled me with feelings of defeat and rejection.
Several months and a dozen applications later, I found better luck turning toward local positions, landing a research assistant position at the University of Michigan’s Susan B. Meister Child Health Evaluation and Research (CHEAR) Center. I’ve loved the job so far, but sometimes I wonder how different my experience would be online. Would I have more flexibility with travel and work hours if my job were remote? Would I miss the in-person interactions? I turned to U-M students to hear about their experiences navigating these questions.
When it first started in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had profound effects on the U.S. workforce, resulting in employers and employees alike making the transition to working from home. Professors and students also shifted to working online — however disastrous or advantageous the adjustment was. Zoom became the new normal for meetings and classes, and Microsoft Teams replaced water cooler talk. But with news of a vaccine in development and hope for the end of the pandemic, uncertainty over what the summer would look like in terms of COVID-19 left many companies with important decisions to make early on in the 2020-2021 school year.
Last summer, LSA sophomore Sara Stawarz had a virtual internship with Google. She had initially hoped to do it again. “It wasn’t possible this summer,” she said during our Zoom interview. “They were doing the internship in Chicago and I couldn’t commit to leaving the state during the pandemic.”
While the U.S. continues to improve in terms of COVID-19 cases, new adjustments mark this summer as a transitional period. For some students like Stawarz, the past few months have been difficult for finding a job or internship. She believes the decision to stay local limited her access to internship opportunities, which have begun to go back to in person. At the same time, local businesses are still recovering from the negative impact of the pandemic. While they deal with the logistics of lifted COVID-19 restrictions, there is still some hesitancy surrounding the virus.
“I didn’t want to do restaurant work and some other things because my parents are older and I didn’t want to potentially expose them to a virus,” Stawarz said. She applied at the library and several other local businesses but noted that they have largely been disorganized and unprepared in bringing employees back in person.
“I think there’s a lot of desperate employers out there, but it’s very hard to coordinate and organize, especially given specific circumstances,” she said, citing some of the challenges of the pandemic.
LSA senior Cielle Waters has also found it difficult to find an internship this year.
“I’ve applied to probably over twenty jobs at this point,” she said in a Zoom interview. “It’s mid-June, and I was still applying for things yesterday.”
Waters admitted she expects some of the jobs she applied for to have steep competition, but that doesn’t make the process any easier, especially when she easily landed two virtual internships last year.
“My resume is improved, I’m learning a third language, I have proofread my resume and checked my cover letters,” Waters continued. “News outlets have been complaining about a shortage of workers, yet so many people I know who just graduated can’t find work.”
The stress placed on students to find a competitive internship or land a stellar summer job is not new, and Waters is unsure why job hunting seems particularly stressful this year. Despite her challenges landing summer employment, however, she thinks highly of the changes to jobs and internships being made this summer — virtual, in person or hybrid.
“The world is moving really fast and we need to be able to keep up, and I think we were a little bit irresponsible not to start making this transition before we absolutely needed to,” she said. Waters believes that the option to work from home is long overdue given modern technology and the flexibility that remote work provides.
Truthfully, I never considered permanent remote work before the pandemic, and even now I’m unsure whether or not I would choose to do so. Networking, exploring workplace culture and doing a mix of tasks for multiple projects are parts of daily work life that would be drastically different if online.
I’ve held several jobs before, but this is my first experience with water cooler interactions and office life in a potential career field. Just last week, I was put on a new project after hallway chit-chat with a supervisor shifted into a more serious discussion about public health. I’ve learned many things about health services research simply by being in the same environment as professionals.
My office opened up for in-person work a few months ago, and besides mask-wearing requirements for unvaccinated individuals, life doesn’t seem much different than before the pandemic.For many jobs, however, the remote format has stuck, or, at least, delayed the process of transitioning back to in-person. Stawarz believes that some companies may hang on to the virtual format permanently.
“I think companies have seen that they can trust people to work at home and they don’t necessarily need a manager hanging over them the whole time,” she said.
Though trust among employers and employees has been tested throughout the pandemic in regard to working from home, working or interning remotely can offer many benefits outside of not having to commute. Although increased initiative may be needed, virtual opportunities may help expose students to new programs, software and digital tools. Remote work, in turn, can help students develop valuable skills and increase digital literacy from the comfort of their own homes.
Engineering junior Bryce Tyburski noted such aspects as huge benefits of his internship. Every week or two he visits a Consumers Energy site in person, but his work is predominantly online. “I don’t think that it’s absolutely necessary to be in the office for my job all the time,” Tyburski said in our Zoom call.
As my lease for the past school year was twelve months, I always planned on being in Ann Arbor this summer. In this way, I’m lucky to be able to live in a place where there are job and internship opportunities. But not everyone is within walking distance of their summer employment. Accessibility is one of the most obvious advantages of online work, which may be particularly advantageous for students who have other summer plans or cannot afford to relocate. Online internships, in many ways, are more inclusive.
“A lot of the jobs I’m applying to as a creative writing major are in places like New York and LA,” Waters said over Zoom. “I don’t really have the means to rent an apartment in New York for the summer.”
Speaking on her internship experiences from last summer, Waters noted how the online format has allowed her to do other things, such as sports practices and taking care of her family.
“You also don’t (have to) figure out the logistics of travel or be stuck in your hometown, where there might not really be any opportunities for you,” she said.
For unpaid internships, which are already limited to students who can afford to work for free, the costs to relocate and rent in a new area can further restrict students from participating. In this way, the opportunity to work online may open new doors for students.
For LSA junior Kareem Rifai, the accessibility of online work is monumental.
“I didn’t have to relocate. I don’t have to drive anywhere. I literally just get up and open my computer when I need to work,” Rifai said over our Zoom interview.
He called me from quarantine housing in South Korea, where he is about to be a full-time student for the next few months.
“As a college student, specifically, I’m not ready to enter the workplace fully, so this is like the perfect transitional kind of job,” he said. “I get that work experience without interrupting my day-to-day life as a student, to the point where I didn’t even need to cancel my study abroad plans.”
Whether the online environment is conducive to student work depends on a variety of factors. Rifai’s job was specifically designed as a remote position, and his employer was fine with his move to South Korea, giving him the ability to work in conjunction with a full course load. As such, increased flexibility of working hours is another potential benefit to working remotely. “Ultimately, I’m in control of my time,” Rifai said. “So long as I get 20 to 25 hours a week, I’m fine.”
In Rifai’s case, how well a position works remotely not only depends on the field, but on how the position was designed, as certain companies may be more conducive to online work than others.
“I think one of the big factors is the difference between jobs that were designed with remote work in mind versus jobs that had to be migrated into online work,” he said.
For Engineering junior Alex Mileski, a challenging and competitive application process was worth it for his online internship working on warehouse software development.
“It’s more flexible in terms of when I want to take time off and obviously safer during the pandemic,” Mileski said.
Despite all the positives of online work this summer, however, some students believe that they’d prefer to be in-person.
“The biggest drawback of not being on site is that you’re not really getting the full work experience,” Tyburski said. “I’ve kind of heard what was cut because they can’t really do in-person events … like they have intern lunches and other interactions that we don’t really get now.”
I empathize with Tyburski. My relationships with my coworkers and supervisors have a significant impact on my workplace environment, thus my employee experience. In remote work, there may not be as many opportunities for non-task interactions among colleagues, which can help build camaraderie and connections.
LSA freshman Matthew Bilik said that between an online and in-person internship or job, he’d definitely choose in-person, believing it to be a more immersive experience.
“We’re not able to have those physical interactions which are super important for, you know, building connections,” he said. “I think you can still build connections, but it’s harder when you’re talking to the screen.”
Mileski agreed, noting it’s harder to become acquainted with people and ask questions when working solely online. While students still get to explore an area of interest, he said the dynamic of an in-person working environment just isn’t there. As such, some students may not feel like they have a complete understanding of the workplace culture in their intended field or what the summer experience means for their career trajectory.
“It’s so much more formalized to ask for help, because you have to reach out via chat or set up a time to meet with somebody,” Mileski said. “Whereas if you’re in person, you can walk over to their desk and say, ‘Hey, can you help me with this real quick,’ which is a lot easier.”
Mileski’s internship will be offering the opportunity to work in person in less than two weeks, and for that, he’s glad. “My internship kind of lends itself towards being online, because a lot of it is software. You’re going to be on a computer no matter what,” he said. “But in actuality with everything being remote, it might not give people as good of a sense as to the career field they’re going into.”
Besides the opportunity to network and build connections with colleagues, students cite a better work-life balance and the professionality of physically going into work each day as positives of in-person work.
“Lack of boundaries makes it hard, because for somebody like me, when I’m at home, I’m in the home mindset, so it’s very difficult to transition from work,” Stawarz said. “It’s hard to really turn off from work mode or turn off from home mode.”
This past school year, I enjoyed the flexibility that the virtual format granted my schedule. With remote work, employees may be able to deviate from the typical nine-to-five work schedule to better fit their needs.
At the same time, it is nice to have clear boundaries between work time and personal time with an in-person job. With my current job, I have a consistent schedule that allows me to clock out both physically and mentally. As such, physically leaving the workplace may be necessary for some people to detach themselves from work.
A hybrid structure could be the balance between formats. For many students, the switch to a hybrid format that some employers — such as Mileski and Tyburski’s — are making sounds appealing. In this way, employees may weigh the benefits of in-person versus online work and have more flexibility in choosing an option that works best for them. The hybrid structure is something students ultimately believe will stick around.
“I think companies will offer a mix (of formats) because they know that if they offer talent what they want, they’ll be more likely to come,” Stawarz said.
Bilik agreed, though he placed more emphasis on the employee. Offering a hybrid method that allows employees to choose what works best for them could provide them with more agency. “I think the hybrid is good because it allows the individual to make the decision, as opposed to whoever’s hiring you,” he said.
From a productivity standpoint, it makes sense for companies to prioritize what needs to be in-person versus what work can be done online. Students like Tyburski believe that’s important to consider moving forward.
“I think that it would probably be better to go back to more of a hybrid format where any important meetings or anything like that are probably two to three days of the week,” Tyburski said. “I don’t think that it’s absolutely necessary that you have to go in every single day for certain jobs.”
For current U-M students, it’s difficult to know what to prefer or expect from employment this summer when many of us have never worked or interned prior to the pandemic. Even after considering the ways online jobs serve and detract from the work experience, it all circles back to the individual. Whether the world of summer jobs and internships will be in person or online moving forward, college students will continue to pursue them and must be ready to decide what they want when they do.
Statement Correspondent Elizabeth Schriner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.