For A Post COVID-19 World, Internship Programs Too Must Adapt And Go Virtual
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Today is the international day for interns. But this year has been different, and it’s been a tough couple of months for people working in talent management. The cherry on the cake has been the issue of schools and universities. Now is the time of year when we’re focused on internships, on bringing in young talent, the next generation of engineers, marketers and finance people, to take up summer internships.
You don’t need me to tell you that things haven’t panned out as planned. In early March, just as the first signs of lockdown were coming into force, we were about to invite applications for our internship program at Schneider Electric. In a matter of days, so much became uncertain and the business was moving fast to adapt and protect against COVID-19. Amidst all of this, we had three options– cancel the program altogether, postpone and hope things improve quickly, or go fully virtual.
We chose the latter.
Before we started the virtual internship program, there were a whole host of questions we had to answer. They ranged from the usual issues such as its duration, to questions about how we could make the program meaningful for both the student and the business. We also had to think through the IT challenges the students would face, and how we could support them with the tools they’d need to be able to communicate with their teams and the wider company.
This hasn’t just been an internal debate, and we’ve talked these issues over with both the students and their universities. I’ll be the first to acknowledge the support that the universities –the American University of Sharjah, the Higher Colleges of Technology, Khalifa University, New York University Abu Dhabi, RIT Dubai and Zayed University– have shown in helping us answer these questions, and making this summer’s program as simple as possible for everyone.
The virtual internship isn’t the only student program that we’ve adapted to be fully online. Now in its tenth year, our Schneider GoGreen initiative is a competition for students worldwide who are encouraged to put forward their ideas in four areas: sustainability and access to energy; buildings of the future; plants of the future, and grids of the future. This year, we received 5367 entries from across the Middle East and Africa. We’ve mentored these students remotely, and we’ve hosted the local and regional judging online.
Earlier this month, we went fully virtual for the first time with a new program. The Global Virtual Student Experience is designed to provide students with a way to engage our people through e-learning and simulated projects. On this journey, students can learn more about what it takes to be in our sales or services business areas, all the while learning skills that they apply to their next project, interview, or internship.
While the ability to sit down physically in the same office as our interns and spend a full day working with them has been taken away from us this year, the reasons for us wanting to have interns and engage with students hasn’t changed. We still want to attract and retain our future workforce. We want to find the best young talent out there. We will continue to invest in the next generation of our customers and partners across the region, with a focus on locals.
There’s a final point I want to make about learnings, and it matters now more than ever. We have a duty to ensure that the learning and mentoring flows both ways, to not just support the development of these students, but also help the business learn from these young people and how they think. They’ve made the switch to virtual internships easily, and they’re finding all of these new processes and ways of working so easy to master. We could all learn a thing or two from youth about working and communicating digitally.
We’re delighted to have been able to welcome our 23 interns last week, on a conference call where we gave them a taste of the company’s culture. The make-up of the group is fascinating– almost two-thirds are women, we have seven nationalities, and 30% of the 23 are UAE nationals (of that number, 85% are women). They’ve already got stuck in, and are working across a range of different functions, including marketing and communications, human resources, supply chain and logistics, and engineering.
I want to end on a final note, a call to action so to speak. As businesses, we have a duty to help these young people build up their experiences and skills, so they’re work-ready. The MENA region has the highest youth population shares in the world. It also has the highest rates of youth unemployment. Even in the Gulf, where there’s a surfeit of employment opportunities, many young people struggle for years to find the right role and career (the unemployment rate among youth in certain countries in the Gulf is 42%, according to the Brookings Institution).
We’ve got to find ways to ensure that student engagement initiatives such as internships work this year. And if that means taking them online, so be it. This isn’t going to be easy, and it’ll require everyone in the company plays a hands-on role in helping make the summer programs a success for the students. I personally believe that all of us, especially people working in talent development and recruitment, will learn valuable lessons from what we’re doing differently this year. And me and my team are happy to share those experiences with others who are thinking going virtual. We’ve got to adapt, and go virtual.