For interns, pandemic restrictions mean navigating new workplaces — from home
Sarah Friedlander was psyched to study abroad this summer in Berlin. Then the coronavirus hit.
This trip was supposed to be the culminating experience of her sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh. Now, Ms. Friedlander, a finance major, had to scramble for something to do.
After a month poring through job sites, she landed an internship at Hop Culture, a Pittsburgh-based online craft beer magazine.
Ms. Friedlander beat the odds of an internship market slaughtered by the pandemic. According to job website Glassdoor, over half of internship openings were closed from March 9 to April 13.
Still, she wondered how at 19 years old how she could write about drinking, something she can’t legally partake in.
Ms. Friedlander isn’t writing beer reviews, but she’s working on some peripheral pitches — namely, lists of the best beer glasses, summer drinking games and beer-related Father’s Day gifts.
“It’s been much easier than I expected to write the pieces because I’m allowed to be witty and make jokes,” she said.
In many cases, the pandemic has allowed interns to fill critical roles at small companies, where their experience and contributions are valuable. Ms. Friedlander works alongside just three employees and one other writing intern.
From her home in Greenville, S.C., Samantha Hovis, a rising junior at Pitt studying marketing, has taken on two part-time internships at small Pittsburgh companies.
She’s a marketing intern for Day Owl, a company that produces sustainably-made backpacks, and for South Side Traveler’s Rest, a local hostel. Now, Ms. Hovis is helping the hostel’s two owners to get foot traffic while the pandemic poses an existential threat to their business model.
“They’re in a situation right now where it’s like, should we change our format so it’s more hotel-like and less hostel?” she said. “We’re sending out a survey to ask people what changes would make you feel safer when you stay with us.”
Like Ms. Friedlander, Ms. Hovis is being paid for her work through school scholarships, like the James B. Tafel fund for Pitt Business students. In all, she’ll get $3,000 for her work at the hostel.
For both Pitt students, their athome work environments have been comfortable. That’s not the case for everyone.
Jon Moss, another rising junior at Pitt studying marketing, has taken on a remote reporting
internship at PublicSource, a nonprofit publication in Pittsburgh.
He lives with his mom, dad and younger brother in northern New Jersey. Since his dad is an accountant working from home,their frequent phone calls reverberate through the house.
“It’s complicated when you have a lot of people who need to do a lot of talking and not a lot of space,” Mr. Moss said.
The Moss family has begun mapping out their day, dividing up the house and figuring out who needs the phone and when.
“We’re all from New Jersey, so we all talk pretty loud,” he said. “There’s some text messages flying around, like, ‘Oh, can you quiet down a little,’ and no one really knows who it’s directed to. It’s usually me.”
Though he’s glad to have a paying internship in a dry market, Mr. Moss misses the human connection of in-person interviews and newsroom life.
“I really value having an in-person workplace culture where I get to be at a desk with my co-workers and chat them up and have those random conversations that happen sort of by accident,” Mr. Moss said. “That can’t really happen over stuff like Slack.”
It’s a very different experience compared to his internship experience last summer. Mr. Moss worked for ShowClix, a Pittsburghbased ticketing software company, and he subleased an apartment with three friends.
“We made dinner every night together. We would sit out at Schenley Plaza and just hang out on nights we didn’t have a lot of work to do. We would go to the farmers market on the weekend. We went to Picklesburgh,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”
For a group of friends with different majors, they got way more face time than they normally would during the school year. It showed Mr. Moss the value of those out-of-work hours.
Lucas Jia, a rising junior at Carnegie Mellon, is going through his first internship experience this summer at Open Field, a nonprofit with locations in Pittsburgh and Cameroon that aims to teach youth leadership and teamwork through soccer. He hasn’t tasted much of workplace life, but he’s already craving those “spontaneous connections” that don’t need a Zoom call.
Initially, Mr. Jia struggled to establish his at-home focus. His office is his childhood bedroom in Plano, Texas, with his laptop laid atop magazines to be more ergonomic.
“It’s a lot harder to be productive at home when I relax, I work, I talk to my friends at the same desk, at the same time in the same position,” he said.
After half a semester of online classes, he’s finding his flow this summer. The flexibility of his part-time, remote internship has allowed Mr. Jia to take on a plethora of tasks.
Every day, he spends three hours on his internship, one hour preparing for an economics class he’s teaching next semester, one hour doing school-funded research on the family impacts of COVID-19 and another hour driving with his mom. He still needs to get his driver’s license.
In the Pittsburgh area, it’s not just smaller companies onboarding interns. Places like PNC Financial Services and Kraft Heinz are taking on sizable intern classes.
PNC will have 465 interns from June 22 to July 31. The bank had planned to host an in-person internship as recently as April, but it has pivoted to an all-virtual intern experience, spokesperson Marcey Zwiebel said.
Kraft Heinz Co. has 41 undergraduate interns and 14 master’s candidates working this summer in virtual internships.
Rachel Hartfield, a rising senior at Howard University, landed an internship with the company over the winter after an exhaustive interview process. For 10 weeks, she’ll work on a project team to maximize Kraft Heinz’s Walmart sales.
It’s still her first week, but Ms. Hartfield’s cohort has been trying their best to mingle through the virtual realm.
“We have a little intern group chat. We follow each other on LinkedIn, on Instagram now, and we’ve had morning coffee chats so we get to know each other better,” she said.
According to Hayden Kornblut, head of university relations for Kraft Heinz, canceling the internships was never on the table. The company kept the intern class posted through virtual orientations, and the team felt the project-based work would translate well to a virtual format.
“The work that they are doing is business impact, high impact work where they can take away after their 10 weeks a true tangible product that they delivered,” Mr. Kornblut said.