Think again: Don’t freeze hiring of interns in times of COVID-19

By Kevin Hempel | April, 2020


February to April is typically a busy and important season for students and employers alike: they are gearing up for summer internships. This year is different, however, as COVID-19 is pushing businesses and other organizations to lay off staff or at least freeze hiring—including of interns. This leaves students and young graduates anxious about getting the work experience they were looking for to jump-start their careers.

Economic crises disproportionately affect young people

Economic crises are bad news for young people, with potentially long-term negative consequences (for a more comprehensive discussion, see for example here and here). Fewer job opportunities mean higher youth un- and underemployment, which is known to have negative implications on future employment and lifetime earnings. First, young people already in employment are more likely to lose their jobs because they hold a disproportionate share of temporary jobs whose contracts offer less protection or because employers consider them more dispensable (last-in, first-out). Second, young people just entering the job market face fewer job openings, and hence a longer transition from education to work as well as delays in becoming financially independent. Finally, those still in education may lack other entry points into the labour market, such as internships and apprenticeships, negatively affecting their acquisition of skills and experience.

Internships are beneficial to employers and young people alike

Internships have become a common tool in the transition from education to employment. Students and jobseekers can benefit by exploring specific industries and job functions, gaining practical skills and work experience, and growing their professional network, and thus facilitate their transition to a permanent job. Indeed, a growing body of evidence shows a positive relationship between internship participation during education and favourable labour market outcomes after graduation. Conversely, employers can increase their visibility among students, bring in young talent to support ongoing work, and screen future employees, among other benefits.

Internship opportunities plummeting amid Corona-crisis

Despite the mutual benefits of internships for students and employers, the Corona-crisis is having a devastating effect on internship opportunities across the globe. News are piling up about organisations cancelling current and upcoming internship programs, including places as diverse as the United States Congress, tech companies like Yelp, London’s investment banks, and German universities. Speaking to career service departments in several universities suggests that at least 35% of summer internships may be cancelled (though universities with traditionally very strong employer partnerships seem somewhat less severely affected). Career fairs have also fallen victim to the crisis. Against this background, university students about to enter the job market have already been labelled as class of COVID-19.

Keep internships and student engagement alive

Granted, there are many good reasons why internships may have to be cancelled or postponed in the current circumstances. Due to revised university schedules, the upcoming summer will often be used to make up classes and exams, leaving potentially little room to do an internship. Moreover, many organizations may no longer be in a position to offer (as many) internship openings, especially if they had to halt activities and/or (temporarily) reduce staff, thus also affecting their ability to supervise potential interns. Companies may also be forced to cut costs, which may affect their internship programme.

Yet, many organisations cutting internships are doing so even in the absence of existential threats to survival (e.g. public sector, large corporations) and despite the fact that many internships are in classic office-jobs related to business, economics, law, etc. that continue to operate.  In these cases, there may be better alternatives to simply cutting interns without alternative.

  • Virtual internships: While this isn’t feasible for all jobs, it is for some. As most of us are expected to work from home, why not do the same with an intern? Everyone will have to adapt a bit to what they are used to, but it is possible. If big companies like Google and small companies (like mine) can do it, so can others. A side-benefit of this unusual arrangement: it is a great testing ground to see the intern’s ability to work independently as well as his or her communication skills.
  • Mentoring: When internships must be cancelled, company staff can offer remote mentoring to the “would-have-been intern”. For instance, this can cover information about the industry and company, general career advice, and recommendations about online classes or some independent project or research that would allow the young person to gain skills and have something to show for later on. This would allow to safeguard at least some of the internship benefits with only a limited time investment from company staff.
  • Webinars and online networking events: As career fairs are cancelled and there are fewer opportunities for students and jobseekers to interact with prospective employers, companies can consider organizing webinars or other virtual formats to engage. For instance, this can include virtual company presentations and Q&A with prospective applicants as well as online “brown-bag-lunches”. While this is no match for more individualized interaction with students and jobseekers, it allows to at least maintain some level of engagement.

In these turbulent times, we should extend our solidarity beyond our neighbours and protect the current generation of young people from the negative repercussions of the crisis on their future careers. This is also in the best interests of employers themselves. After all, bringing in young talent to support ongoing projects and identifying future employees will continue to yield big benefits even in uncertain economic times.


Kevin Hempel is the Founder and Managing Director of Prospera Consulting, a boutique consulting firm working towards stronger policies and programmes to facilitate the labour market integration of disadvantaged groups. He will host his first “virtual intern” this summer. Please email him with additional ideas on what companies can do to maintain internships and other engagement with students and jobseekers during these challenging times. You can also follow him on Twitter @KevHempel.