TotalCare IT Blog

Virtual Internships and Income Disparities in Work-from-Home During the Pandemic

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COVID-19 has brought a huge shift in the workforce. Right now, about half of employed U.S. adults are working from home. While this is a huge feat and we should celebrate how many companies were able to pivot quickly and go virtual, we must remember that we are sitting at an 11% unemployment rate from those companies that could not pivot, or were deemed unessential.

Now that we are five months into the pandemic state-side, we can begin to analyze the employment data being collected around the nation. One thing we can see clearly is the disparity in the income spread of work-from-home employees.

A study done by Brookings (2020) found that “higher-income workers are much more likely to be working from home during the pandemic and much less likely to be unable to work at all than lower-income workers.”1 There are a few main reasons for this. First, many low-income jobs can not be performed from home, such as food service, retail, and administrative work. People in these positions have been laid off in droves, or seen their hours drastically reduced.

Second, low-income families generally have less access to a computer and high-speed internet connection.  This greatly increases the struggle to obtain a remote job.

Third, low-income workers tend to have more health problems deemed as risk-factors for contracting the virus. Because of this, many of them have had to leave their jobs altogether. Those that have not left their jobs are now the most at-risk, taking the most risk to provide for their families.

Lastly, an overlooked subset of low-income workers—college students and recent graduates—are entering a workforce that has little room for them in the traditional sense: paid internships and Summer jobs.

Most students take Summer jobs at restaurants or in retail to make money before the next semester. Enter Summer 2020: some schools are postponed indefinitely (other than their online programs), and most restaurants and retail stores have drastically reduced their hours and employee count.

Students that might normally take an internship (especially those that are required to take one to graduate) are also seeing these opportunities disappear as companies slash their budgets.

However, these college students and recent graduates are in a unique position because although they are low-income, they are also likely to have high-speed internet access and the ability to work remotely, because they already had these resources for school.

An interesting phenomenon that has happened is the transition to virtual paid internships.

Computer hardware brand Lenovo is one company that has made the pivot to virtual internships. “’We usually start the internship onboarding process in March as students approach final exams and start setting their sights on summer plans,’ explains Marybeth Caulfield, Senior Talent Acquisition Manager. ‘It was about that time when COVID started really hitting our communities here in North America and leadership made the call to close the offices – we had to make some quick decisions on how to proceed.’

With employees working from home for the foreseeable future, the talent acquisition team set their sights on virtual capabilities. While some roles that take place within our labs on campus were not feasible due to the in-person necessity, Lenovo was able to save over 80 percent of their annual internship offerings, extending 90 virtual internships this summer to students and recent grads across North America.”2

Many universities have switched to virtual internships as well. One example is Kennesaw State University’s history majors that are participating in a virtual internship program with KSU’s  Museum of History and Holocaust Education. The internship program focuses on creating digital lessons for history teachers to use in the coming fall semester and beyond.

Companies that have embraced online internships, like Lenovo, UPS, Pandora, Chick-fil-A, Ecolab, Bank of America, and NCR, are going to experience a different outcome during this pandemic than those that have not made the virtual pivot. What that difference will be is to-be-determined, however, we can speculate that companies embracing remote work and virtual internships will be better equipped to pivot in other areas of their business during this time. Why? Because they are open to change and are charging forward.

Just as Mike Perna wrote in a recent Forbes article, “The rise of the virtual internship is not just an opportunity for young people to beef up their remote-work skills. It’s a proving-ground for companies to embrace the new virtual workplace and take remote productivity to the next level.

Moving your internships online will train not just interns, but also your seasoned staff to adapt in this brave new world of remote work. Your ability to evolve as a company will be put to the test as you introduce interns to a workplace that is changing daily. It’s not going to be easy, but it can set the stage for growth.”3

If your organization was considering offering an internship program before the pandemic, it might still be a very good idea, if done virtually. Not only will it make your company more resilient and technology-driven, it will also help the low-income section of college students and recent grads who are not able to find traditional internships or work in their field.

More work needs to be done at the local level to lessen income disparities in our communities. As business owners, we are the community leaders with the power to help make this change. Here’s how:

    1. We can offer paid internships or apprenticeships to the young adults in our community.
    2. We can work with our local and state leaders to fund grants and programs that will reduce income disparities, such as Governor Little’s decision to use $50 million of the federal coronavirus relief fund to increase broadband connectivity in Idaho. This grant money will increase broadband access in low-income and rural communities.
    3. We can talk about the local income disparity we see with our colleagues to brainstorm LOCAL solutions.
    4. We can invest in education. This means supporting our local school districts and early learning programs. It also means investing in our employees’ education, so that they can grow into higher wage earners.
    5. We can hire workers who have been through the criminal justice system (where industries allow). Often, one mistake leads to a lifetime of low-income jobs, because higher paying positions will not consider felons or previously incarcerated applicants.

We can do better for our communities to bolster confidence, experience, income, and economic resiliency. We can grow our local economy and workforce as we grow our businesses. Now more than ever, us business leaders need to be community leaders. I have been thinking a lot lately about what TotalCare IT can do during this time to truly help the community. It doesn’t always have to be big things.  For instance, when everything first started shutting down a few months ago, we offered to loan out our company cars to local non-profits that were delivering essential supplies to those in need.

Currently I am working on a project that addresses cybersecurity and work-from-home infrastructure for non-profits. Hopefully I will be able to share more about that soon, as it is something I am very passionate about. If you know of any non-profits in need in these areas, please email me at .

As Perna wrote, “The capacity to grow expands in the midst of uncomfortable circumstances, never when it’s simply business as usual. Coronavirus may be forcing your hand a little sooner than you had planned, but the remote workplace was always inevitable. Embrace it, adapt to it—and thrive.”3

For Harvard Business School’s tips on how to create a virtual internship program for your business, visit http://ow.ly/iUx450APJtJ.

1 Reeves, Richard and Rockwell, Jonathan. 2020. “Class and COVID: How the less affluent face double risks.” Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/03/27/class-and-covid-how-the-less-affluent-face-double-risks/

2 Hill, Katelyn. 2020. “Virtual Realities: Internships in the Age of COVID-19.” Worldwide Communications, Lenovo. https://news.lenovo.com/virtual-realities-internships-in-the-age-of-covid-19/

3 Perna, Mike. 2020. “Summer Internship Programs Are Going Virtual—Is Yours?” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/markcperna/2020/04/13/summer-internship-programs-are-going-virtual-is-yours/#137ad7ff3fa0 

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