Anna Simon, a senior at Iowa State University, stopped by Renewable Energy Group’s Ames office in early June to pick up her new work laptop. She would be spending the summer working with communications manager Katie Stanley and communications coordinator Grace Feilmeier to study and improve REG’s own internal communications processes. 

Along with 35 other REG interns, she would also be working from home. Only five interns this year would work in person at REG facilities as the company shifted office staff entirely to remote work in spring of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S. 

“This would have been my first job in an office. That aspect of it was kind of taken from us, unfortunately,” said Simon, a Des Moines native who lives in Ames. 

For interns and apprentices, and the companies that hire them, real-world work experience has been altered drastically. In 2018, the National Association of Colleges and Employers estimated the U.S. had as many as 300,000 students participating in some form of pre-employment apprenticeship. 
The educators helping students find internships watched everything change, too. At Des Moines Area Community College, professors and students had to find organizations that still felt prepared to take on a temporary worker as nearly every industry and sector shifted daily practices, said Stephanie Oppel, work-based learning director at DMACC.

“COVID really created a challenge, but also opportunities. It’s challenging in that when employers are making hard decisions about their existing staff and needing to furlough people or cut hours … it’s not really a great time to think about bringing somebody in to give them that work-based learning experience, according to some folks,” Oppel said. 

Yet, work-based learning is not going away, she said. “It’s just rethinking how we can do that right now. I think it’s as much of a priority, and I would say work-based learning is even more of a priority than it had been two or three years ago, across the state and across industries.  
 
“Across the workplace learning continuum, people are having conversations about how we can do this and not slow down or limit opportunity.” 

Change in experience

As DMACC departments rushed to help students adapt or find completely new internships, the community college quickly changed policy to offer credit to students who completed either a virtual internship or a project-based summer learning initiative developed by the student and their instructors. 

“It’s really been creating that variation of opportunities -- digging in and seeing where faculty have connections, students have their own connections and [where] our Career Services team can help -- anybody who might have an idea of where students could be placed,” Oppel said. “A lot of companies just didn’t have the capacity to bring in interns, so it required us to be a little creative.”   

Marketing and tech internships in particular have been very adaptable to students working remotely, while trades such as DMACC’s automotive program have had to intentionally adjust hands-on training. DMACC began requiring both students and employers to officially sign off that they recognized and agreed to official CDC, state and industry-specific safety recommendations. 
In the mortuary science department, DMACC has students out on field internships in up to 20 states, Oppel noted. 

“That’s a lot of difference in terms of what the requirements are. Fortunately, that’s an industry that is highly regulated, and students feel very safe going in and knowing that they’re going to be taken care of in terms of the employer partners they’re working with,” she said. “What we’re seeing mirrors, generally, how the workforce has been able to move online.”
 
COVID-19’s international emergence in early 2020 prompted REG’s emergency response team to begin examining how the pandemic would affectimpact operations; by April 20, leadership sent out notice to interns and their supervisors that the company would continue internships as planned for the summer, but virtually, either allowing interns to pick up their laptop from a socially distanced delivery line at the Ames headquarters or by mailing it to out-of-state interns. Orientation, introductions to team members and social hours with other interns were all coordinated through video conferences.
 
REG’s internship program began with four interns in 2007, five years after the company’s foundation. In 2019, 57% of the company’s intern class received full-time job offers from REG after completing the program. Today, it is a 12-week program with 41 interns from across 10 states -- many of whom would have moved to Iowa. Claire Hampton, a senior at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, would have been one of those students. 

By the start of the virtual internship, Hampton had already subleased an apartment in Ames. She and her supervisor continued to revisit whether she should travel to Ames over the summer, but by July there was no need to, she said. 

“That kind of interaction that we aren’t able to have because of COVID in the office, the company definitely makes up for leaps and bounds with the willingness to get on Zoom and have a conversation or share resources,” Hampton said.  

REG didn’t have a remote-work policy in place before early March, but the few weeks of adjustment that staff members had before welcoming interns to the team helped build confidence in the new tools. The company implemented “buddy” groups of two full-time employees per intern, and encouraged the groups to schedule virtual launches and develop a mentor/mentee relationship. The See Yourself in Ames virtual program by the Ames Chamber of Commerce also allows interns to network with interns from other Ames area businesses, further building connections.

Scheduling recurring check-ins between interns and full-time REG teams is up to managers. “Most of them see their managers at least [once] a day,” said Abby Brend, senior specialist in talent acquisition for REG. “Seeing the team is important to make sure that everyone’s on task.” 

Future effects

For educators and students attempting to plan for a fall semester, finding organizations that could be flexible in how internships are offered will aid an already uncertain environment. Fall classes begin on Aug. 26 at DMACC campuses, with plans to offer both virtual and in-person classes -- 30% of fall classes will be held face-to-face -- but with so much changing information around the pandemic’s infection rate and policy recommendations over the summer, Oppel and her colleagues organizing internships felt “like we’re maybe in the waiting game,” she said. 

“Employers who are already stretched thin don’t want to take something on, but employers who are doing well in this environment are able to be creative and think about what they might be able to do. Employers recognize that we have shortages in our talent pipeline, and we need to attract and retain students in the state,” Oppel said. “I don’t think that people are turning away from work-based learning and internships -- I think they’re really turning towards it, but just thinking about how we can do that safely and smartly.” 

By July, REG had not set a date to return employees to the office full time. While final decisions were between interns and their supervisors, it is not likely that any interns who live out of state would be brought to the Ames office before the end of their internship, Stanley said. 

“Being forced to make some changes due to a virtual setting has allowed us to be more creative and lean on technology to really provide a very inclusive environment -- it doesn’t matter if an intern is in Pennsylvania or Iowa this summer. They’re going to get the same opportunity for interaction,” Stanley said. “We may even in the future consider how we offer remote opportunities in order to continue to grow our base of universities.” 

Around 80% of DMACC’s faculty and staff were able to sucessfully transition their jobs remotely in the spring, which led the Work-Based Learning department to think about how integrating permanent remote internships might affect students in the future, Oppel said. 

“If that’s our case in the very high-touch environment that education is … how can we capitalize on that to break down some barriers?” she said. “Some students have the opportunity to travel and go away to an internship, but not all students do, [with] family obligations, work requirements. How might we be able to leverage technology to create more opportunities for students -- that’s something I’m really interested in. 

“We’ve been forced to think that way, but now we are more comfortable with it, and can see what we can do.”