Revamping Internship Programs for a Virtual World

August 14, 2020
Rebecca Cenni-Leventhal

A look at how internship programs in the pharma industry have changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In November 2019, I wrote an article for Pharmaceutical Executive about the value of comprehensive recruitment cycles and the importance of incorporating early talent initiatives within an overarching staffing strategy. Despite the onset of uncertainty due to COVID-19, the value of effectively navigating the future of talent has not changed. However, the course is no longer clearly charted. The pandemic has created a great deal of change for everyone. And it is clear that student workers, and the pharma internship programs they and the pharma industry rely upon, are not immune from the impact.

According to a survey conducted in April 2020 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 22% of respondents planned to retract internship offers for the summer. Despite new challenges, it is vital to our future pharma workforce that we continue to prepare and professionally develop early talent. While there is uncertainty surrounding the economy and many companies are cutting their budgets, the good news is that there is a virtual space for internship programs and pharma companies are among the many organizations making this shift.

When it comes to innovation, pharma has always been ahead of the curve. So, it's not at all surprising that this standard extends to their people resources. We are not only seeing the adoption of virtual internship programming within the industry but also the sponsorship of meaningful, inclusive virtual environments that cultivate greater opportunity for underrepresented student workers.

“We’ve always been proud of our internship program and the opportunity it offers young people,” says Sally Susman, Pfizer’s executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer, in a client testimonial. “Our CEO, Albert Bourla, had the idea that we should set an ambition to have more than half of the students hired from sources we haven’t actively recruited from before, and to find young people for whom this summer job could be life changing. Atrium was crucial to helping us achieve that bold goal.”

Internships can succeed from anywhere. For an all-inclusive approach to intern program (re)design, pharmaceutical companies must assess, progress, and create a pipeline for their programming. Virtual programming is not all that different from a traditional internships. However, there are new needs to consider, especially regarding onboarding, equipment, and staying connected. Here are a few steps that pharma can take to successfully implement virtual internship programs:

Assess

  • Remote Needs: Consider what resources the company and its interns will need to collaborate successfully and from a distance. Setting up new accounts for various software and technology platforms like web cams, laptops, and virtual meeting providers makes getting started easy.
  • Virtual Orientation: Make new student workers feel welcomed. There may no longer be a physical desk or workplace for welcome packages and internal introductions, but companies can still hold an orientation to better prepare everyone for the work ahead—and swag bags are shippable. Include a personalized note for a special touch.
  • eLearning: Create a schedule for trainings and important introductions—both can be done easily virtually. Pharmaceutical companies are improving their learning and development offerings through eLearning platforms. With enhanced online curriculum, successful programs can develop interns’ interpersonal, business, and technical skills. To expand upon eLearning, companies can further curriculum through professional coaching services. These virtual one-on-one sessions can strengthen individual and collective talent to reinforce student workers’ short- and long-term goals. No matter how learning initiatives are implemented, set expectations from the start. Review projects and timelines as well as detailed communication expectations for remote work.
  • Virtual Program Structure: Does intern programming already exist in your company? If so, perhaps there is a solid foundation to build upon. Metrics are vital to understanding program success and visibility into the value of an intern program, so determine what data need to be collected. Take time to interview interns to understand their learning goals at the start of the program and do so again at the program’s end; then compare their responses to measure overall effectiveness. Conducting the interviews via video is a fun, interactive way to conduct the Q&As remotely.

Progress

  • Flexible Scheduling: Another consideration as pharma shifts away from traditional internships is timing. Student workers may have relied on a lower amount of coursework over the summer to commute to and from a workplace. However, remote internships allow students more of an opportunity for work to co-exist with their studies—even internationally—if appropriately planned. With many companies sponsoring year-round internship programs, pharma companies can now properly plan on continuing summer internships throughout the fall and winter semesters, despite what university schedules may be.
  • Social at a Distance: The students in pharma intern programs depend on the connections they are building near and far, so programs should consider how to connect student workers globally. Virtual lunch-and-learns, leadership series, and social events provide immense networking opportunities that benefit interns. There are numerous social platforms to aid remote group chats. For example, if you are already a Microsoft subscriber, Teams and Yammer are useful tools to improve engagement.
  • Virtual Feedback Loop: Keep communication lines open and check in regularly. Don’t only ask for feedback at the beginning and the end of an assignment. Look for feedback throughout the entire experience, particularly as the structure of the program may be new this year for everyone. It’s important to remember remote work during COVID-19 is not typical remote work. Stress and anxiety levels are higher than usual, which means communicating with compassion is particularly essential.

Pipeline

  • Wide-Reaching Opportunity: Consider incorporating new goals into a virtual program. Integrating diversity, inclusion, and equity metrics within programming might be a way to move corporate initiatives forward. Pharma has the chance to sponsor opportunities on an even greater scale than before. Distance learning can also further develop an inclusive and diverse intern culture. It provides easy access to impact more people, including those who may not otherwise be afforded the chance to participate. Students formerly held back for reasons including at-home care responsibilities, finances, geographical location, and/or other personal obstacles can now be considered for remote internships.
  • Talent Communities: Having a comprehensive talent cycle in place harnesses potential at all levels to reinforce a diverse, able talent community for tomorrow. Sustaining early relationships with talent and remaining connected with former interns, contractors, and/or former colleagues throughout their careers allow companies to quickly engage and redeploy talent. The COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to a greater number of mid- to senior-level job seekers. Pharma brands who are effectively managing internship programs can implement “returnship programs” to bolster their talent community with experienced talent ready to perform at high levels. Recruitment marketing strategies that engage workers at all levels and within various capacities are proving to be the most sought-after by job seekers.

It’s important to build the necessary resources before embarking on a virtual intern program (re)design. While making adjustments may seem overwhelming, companies such as Atrium offer services to help guide that transformation. By empowering technology to optimize program goals, experts can provide structure to leverage diverse talent populations and build virtual events that instill a much-needed sense of belonging within student worker communities. Pairing intern programs with technology, business intelligence software, and engagement solutions such as those offered by Symba, a partner of Atrium, can help ensure remote intern program success.

Virtual internship programs are not a placebo—they should be considered a benefit that has the potential for long-lasting positive effects on the pharma industry and its future talent pipeline. According to NACE's April 2020 survey, the number of employers moving to virtual programs grew from 36% at the beginning of April to 46% by the end of the month. As adoption of these programs grows and they are no longer bound by space and time, pharma companies have the opportunity to open their global doors and welcome a wider population of interns to their roster.

Rebecca Cenni-Leventhal is founder and CEO of Atrium

Related Content:

Leadership | COVID-19 | Industry Trends