3 Reasons Why Your Business Should Embrace Virtual Internships


By Dr. Leigh Anne Taylor Knight, Executive Director and COO, The DeBruce Foundation

The internship practice coined a word in 2020 in response to the pandemic: vShips.

Internships—along with externships, fellowships, apprenticeships, returnships, and all the ’ships—are crucial for preparing individuals for careers, connecting talent with opportunity, and building a sustainable workforce. When internship numbers declined due to the pandemic, employers suddenly needed a strategy for keeping these pathway-expanding opportunities open.

Not all internships can shift to virtual. But some employers that otherwise could make the switch may not have known how to create or preserve—let alone grow—internship programs in a socially distanced world. For some, it may have seemed easier to cut internship programs entirely rather than to reenvision them as online or hybrid programs. But that’s a risky choice that could hold them back from opportunities and growth.

In 2020, after researching what companies and organizations were doing and learning, The DeBruce Foundation launched vShips, an online resource portal designed to demystify virtual internships for employers based on national business leaders’ guidance and practical tips for creating and maximizing vShips, or virtual internships.

During four roundtable discussions in late 2020, these leaders discussed vShips’ considerations such as how to onboard new interns and barriers such as access to technology. These discussions identified three observations that emerged last year and can help ensure smooth sailing for the future of your organization:

  1. Cutting internships means cutting off your own training and talent pipeline.

That includes your goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion. vShips can help you keep the pipeline open—and maybe even expand it.

The pandemic brought several issues to light for business leaders. Factors such as transportation, pay (or, more importantly, the lack thereof), and location can inhibit potential candidates from taking internships.

“One of the good things about virtual internships is it brings conversations about diversity in internships to a larger stage about equality and access,” says Jazmin Burrell, a creative strategist at Snap who oversaw a vShip program in 2020.

And simply allowing interns to live and work from anywhere entices more individuals to apply, which can exponentially grow your number of qualified candidates, says Ted Green, who supervised virtual interns at Facebook.

Tyler Nottberg, CEO and chairman of US Engineering, noted the importance of retaining a vShip program to maintain a future-based culture. “In order for us to continue thinking about the future, our internship program is essential,” he said.

Whether it’s eliminating issues around location, a professional wardrobe, or transportation, vShips present opportunities for many companies to diversify their intern pool by making the program more inclusive.

  1. Paid interns, fellows, externs, and apprentices produce valuable work and can play key roles in improving your bottom line.

Many employers consider interns and fellows an important part of their workforce who make meaningful contributions.  Interns can take responsibility and ownership over decisions and projects and can “manage up” to complete tasks and move forward projects. This autonomy makes for a more rewarding experience for all involved.

But this can only happen when you give interns real work responsibilities and the support they need to manage their projects. “Take away any preconceived notions about what you think a student is going to do with the ability to work from home on their couch,” says Eva Finan, senior talent management consultant at Commerce Bank. “They are going to work hard, they are going to be engaged, they are going to learn how to network.”

  1. Offering vShips can help you navigate the future of work by reorienting your company for digital natives, rather than requiring digital natives to conform to traditional practices.

We all know that the future of work will be powered by the younger generations, so why not embrace their input, voice, and needs now?

PwC didn’t change the content of its internship program in 2020—it just changed the way it delivered the program, says Beth Barakat, national talent acquisition programs manager. Changing this delivery allowed the company to build on and modernize its existing program. Other leaders developed new ways to increase internal communication that benefited the entire company, not just the interns.

Virtual and hybrid work is here to stay. vShip programs can be a great place for your organization to pilot new ideas and platforms.

In that sense, the disruption of the pandemic has been a silver lining for many.

“It was really scary to say, ‘Let’s go virtual,’” says Kristopher Frye, co-executive director of The Urban Leaders Fellowship. “What we didn’t anticipate was that we found ourselves in this innovative space where we could redefine.”

With the promise of more vaccinations, we hope more businesses can fully and safely return to in-person work soon. But we know this will take time, and future internships may still be largely either vShips or hybrid internships. Further ahead, some of the changes that seem like temporary solutions may hold in the future of work.

Regardless of your vships’ physical location or medium, it’s critical for your organization to keep open as many doors as possible to expand career pathways and your economic growth. vShips are sailing. Don’t miss the boat.

To learn more about The DeBruce Foundation and vShips click here.

The DeBruce Foundation is a national foundation whose mission is to expand pathways to economic growth and opportunity. The Foundation is committed to helping individuals unlock their potential and find career pathways. By developing solutions such as the Agile Work Profiler, we change how people pursue careers. By partnering strategically, we increase experiences and exposure to widen career opportunities, starting with youth and working across the lifespan.

Dr. Leigh Anne Taylor Knight is a resourceful, future-focused leader who serves The DeBruce Foundation as executive director and chief operating officer. A teacher at heart, she has also served as a K-12 assistant superintendent, advised learning institutions across the nation, and led a bi-state educational research consortium.

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