The Downside of Virtual Internships

When the pandemic hit, virtual internships saved the day, allowing about 40% of long-planned internships to go forward. And because they appeared to have been at least somewhat successful, a number of employers have stuck with them—or are wondering if they should.

The short answer is: it depends. It depends on your company and its goals for its internship program. It depends on your culture and the role you want your interns to play.

Because while virtual internships do offer some value, they don’t deliver the same experience or results as in-person internships do. Just ask the interns themselves!

What the Interns Say  

In a University of Wisconsin-Madison survey of nearly 10,000 interns—half virtual, half in-person—those who conducted their internships online reported lower satisfaction, less career-development value, and fewer networking opportunities than their in-person counterparts.

And in a separate Glassdoor survey, 70% of interns report having a negative association with remote work altogether.

So, while some employers believe that online internships are worthwhile (not to mention simpler and less expensive than in-person alternatives), many interns don’t share that belief—and are therefore less likely to pursue them.

But what exactly is the downside? Let’s examine the advantages that in-person internships provide—and see how virtual internships measure up.


How Internships Benefit Employers   

One key advantage of internship programs is that they serve as a talent pipeline for employers, helping them identify and cultivate future stars. In fact, employers say that, when it comes to recruiting entry-level employees, their internship program is the strategy with the best ROI.

In addition, internship programs offer:

  • Increased productivity – Because interns can take on certain tasks and projects that free up experienced employees for higher-level work.
  • Labor cost efficiencies – Interns are often paid less than full-time employees (and some aren’t paid at all), making them a cost-effective labor source.
  • Enhanced reputations – Robust internship programs help companies build their brand and forge relationships with prime talent sources like colleges.

How Internships Benefit Students  

Similarly, internships offer many compelling benefits to students. A full 70% of interns are offered positions at the companies where they interned. In addition, new grads who interned are 35% more likely to receive an offer than those who did not.

In addition, internships offer students:

  • Real-world experience, often in their chosen field
  • Networking opportunities and connections  
  • Skill-building opportunities
  • Commitment-free opportunities to sample given employers/industries


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The Downside of Virtual Internships   

Considering all these benefits, here’s where virtual internships often fall short.

Limited Interaction with Colleagues

Virtual interns miss out on many of the social and professional benefits face-to-face interactions offer. It’s harder to build strong relationships—or even connect in a meaningful way—when working remotely. For employers, it can be harder to get a bead on how an intern collaborates with a team.

Lack of Structure and Support

Without the same level of oversight that comes with working onsite, virtual interns may struggle to stay organized and focused—and often have a harder time getting manager feedback. In one survey, interns expressed a preference for brief daily manager check-ins, plus one 30-60 minute weekly meeting. For many managers, this is more easily and organically accomplished in person.

Limited Exposure to Company Culture

Since virtual interns aren’t physically present in the workplace, they may not fully experience the company’s culture or values. This can make it more challenging to integrate into the company later—while making it harder for both employers and students to judge if it’s a good match.


Getting the Most from Your Internship Program

Of course, there is a place in the world for virtual internships. But sticking with them simply because they’re easier to manage isn’t a valid business reason, given all the tradeoffs.

If that’s the real issue, the solution may be to simply outsource the administration of your internship program. UrbanBound’s internship solution handles all of the logistics for employers—relocation, housing, stipend disbursement—while helping interns navigate the process with confidence.

That frees both students and employers to focus on building a relationship and leveraging the intern experience—which ultimately serves them both better down the road.

For more insights on building a vibrant, rewarding internship program, visit our online library. No doubt about it: internship programs are a wonderful thing. Make yours as wonderful as possible!

Human Resources Today