This might be the hardest summer in recent history for college students seeking internships.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in March, workplaces across the country went on lock down. The stock market plummeted, retail revenue dried up, and companies instituted hiring freezes. For college students, the swift downturn soon became a death knell for summer internships.

“The situation is probably more difficult than I’ve ever seen before for internships,” said Barbara Hewitt, executive director of Career Services at the University of Pennsylvania, who has experienced four recessions. But the one sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic feels different.

Normally, the impact of a recession is very “industry-specific,” Hewitt said. While one group of companies might be suffering, others could be doing well. The need for social distancing means that many interns cannot go to work anymore.

“It really has hit almost every industry, every part of the country,” Hewitt said. “Even though employers may have work and they may be able to pay their interns, there’s all of the problems of trying to figure out how to do that remotely.”

Hewitt has been referring students to a crowd-sourced database called Hiring20 that catalogs the internship status for companies across the country. It lists Comcast as rescinding some positions and Urban Outfitters as canceling its program. Neither company would discuss its interns.

Even where programs have been canceled, some firms are still hosting webinar series for interns, or finding ways to fast-track rising seniors for future openings.

Hewitt knows that students may be nervous about losing an internship this summer, because those programs often serve as pipelines to full-time positions.

But “just being resilient and flexible, I think, is the best thing that students can do, and show how they’ve been productive,” she said. “It’s going to be looked at with a little bit of an asterisk, the summer of 2020.”

Some companies are making it work by reducing the number of interns and going completely virtual.

Experience with remote work

SAP, a German software company with its U.S. headquarters in Newtown Square, retained all intern offers that had been made before late March.

In 2019, the company hired 271 interns to work at that location. In the first two quarters of 2020, it has hired 95, putting the company about 40 interns below its halfway point last year. “What that means for the second half of the year, I don’t know,” intern coordinator Christine Archer said. “I’m guessing that we will still fall a little less.”

Archer says SAP focused on how to virtually continue the success of its internship program — ranked as the top program in the U.S. in a 2019 survey from the career site WayUp.com. Although much of the company already conducts business virtually due to its international structure, Archer and her team wanted to provide new training for managers on how to better help this year’s interns. SAP encouraged its managers to turn on videos and microphones in all of its virtual meetings for easier communication, and to send interns a team organization chart with pictures of the office floor plan to help them envision what the normal working environment looks like.

Tyr Zong, a rising senior at Drexel University, has been working with SAP in a rotational internship program for more than a year. As a full-time student, he was already assisting the development team remotely. Zong says that the biggest difference is that his manager now has more virtual meetings and slightly less time to answer questions. But Zong thinks these changes have enabled him to become more autonomous in solving problems, and that “the COVID situation improves my productivity by a little bit.”

Product marketing intern Isabelle Hilder also noticed increased productivity on her projects. She works under SAP Concur, a division that offers management of travel expenses to other businesses. “I’m working to put together a write-up that explains opportunities and places where we can better support our customers to drive adoption for Concur travel and expense products,” Hilder said. Being at home has given Hilder more freedom to work independently while also having access to her project manager for weekly check-ins.

Archer tried to re-create some of the more social aspects of the program. She is thankful for the company’s commitment to its corporate social-responsibility program, which encourages employees to volunteer. “Something that I felt was missing from my quarantine life was that I couldn’t find ways to volunteer, and I think this has provided that for me,” she said.

Michael Davis, an intern in the Success Factors cloud-based software division, says he’s also found community in virtual lunches among the intern class and opportunities to be a part of groups like the Black Employee Network at SAP. “Getting connected to others has been really awesome,” he said.

Navigating the virtual office

TD Bank, which has its U.S. headquarters in Cherry Hill, also decided to revamp its internship program for the summer. There are only 72 interns this year, compared with 95 in 2019, but internship coordinator Erica Stauffer says the pandemic isn’t a major reason for that, as intern offers are made in the fall.

The new program this year, Stauffer notes, emphasizes training for both interns and managers on how to navigate the virtual office. She says the company helped managers understand the need for professional and emotional check-ins with interns during meetings, and encouraged them to look out for implicit biases that come from communicating virtually. “We’ve put a lot of thought into how do we get them to walk away with a better understanding of the company, walk away with a better sense of the community,” Stauffer said.

Part of that community comes from social engagement, too. Stauffer and the talent team set up a rotational lunch series for interns so that by the end of the summer, every intern will have had lunch with every other intern at least once.

And for each week of the 10-week program, intern teams from different divisions assemble a small newsletter to share their thoughts from morning work-from-home routines to how they feel about pineapple pizza. A recent newsletter featured intern reflections on unrest in the country, and how to be more inclusive. “Sometimes we don’t have the words, but being an active listener and participant in this political climate is becoming more important than ever,” wrote intern Brandon Lauer wrote.

Kaylie Kenebrew, an intern for TD Bank’s health and education team, says that these programs, paired with regular coffee chats and an intern group chat, have helped her build connections at the company. “Even though it’s not exactly the same [as being in person], I’m happy that we’re able to have some sort of rapport.”

She was surprised when she heard from TD Bank in March that the internship was still on. “A lot of my friends in the same industry, their internships were canceled or postponed,” she said.

Tyrek Henry, an intern working remotely from Philadelphia, was also surprised by the news. But his reaction was mixed with disappointment, because he thought a virtual experience “wouldn’t be as good.”

Once the internship started, however, Henry found it more organized and engaging than he expected. Because of frequent meetings and Zoom check-ins, Henry says, he’s “been able to network just as well as I would be able to in person.” With help from his manager and others, Henry can virtually meet and talk with employees who aren’t even in his department, which he thinks he might not have been able to do as much in person.

Checking in

GlaxoSmithKline also found a way to maintain its Esprit internship programs for MBA students this summer. The pharmaceutical company, which has a corporate office headquarters in the Navy Yard, chose to continue the program largely because it helps the company assess candidates for full-time jobs, according to talent business lead Rachel Bonner.

The program didn’t lose any funding or rescind any offers for its seven interns this summer. Over the course of 12 weeks, the Esprit interns work on independent projects that they present to senior leaders at the end of the summer. One intern will lead a project in consumer marketing about how to deliver tailored messages to patients for Nucala, a treatment for severe asthma. Another intern will work on expanding the marketing campaign for Trelegy, a lung disease treatment, and assisting on developing promotions for COVID-19 information, said Sholeh Dadressan, Early Talent Program manager.

Beyond its projects, though, GlaxoSmithKline also wants to improve the intern experience with daily coffee check-ins and intern lunch programs. “Part of what’s missing, I think, is that personal connection,” said Dadressan. “But I think it has to adjust to the circumstances of the pandemic.”

Some interns and managers are able to find work-arounds. Online, they have virtual happy hours or play trivia games with each other over video chat. And although the interns and managers are scattered across the country, those within driving distance have socially distanced meet-ups in parking lots from time to time. “They felt the next day when they saw each other on camera, it felt a bit more connected because they’d seen each other,” Dadressan said.