st. olaf staff

Staff at St. Olaf’s Piper Center for Vocation and Career greet students via the video-conferencing platform Zoom. According to Senior Associate Director Kirsten Cahoon, her team has been working with employers to try and find ways to make internships remote and project-based, as similar opportunities become more challenging to find due to COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of St. Olaf College)

Like many high school seniors, Tyia Graupmann has been planning out life after graduation since the beginning of the school year.

Instead of moving on to college in the fall, the Owatonna High School student was looking to enter the workforce full-time. After meeting with workforce development coordinator Anisha Zak, Graupmann landed an internship at Federated Insurance in January, which she said both sides hoped would turn into a full-time position after graduation.

With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, businesses began to transition their employees to remote work ahead of an eventual shutdown of all non-essential in-person activity. For a number of local high school students interning at Federated, this meant an early end to the semester-long experience in late March.

“I was pretty nervous about it,” said Graupmann, who was getting paid hourly for the internship. “They had let me go, so I wasn’t going to be finishing my three remaining months. I didn’t know if I was going to get the full-time position.”

According to Julie Rethemeier, director of public affairs for Federated, the company ended the program at the same time it enacted stricter social distancing guidelines.

“We confirmed with the Owatonna school district that ending the program for the year would not adversely affect our interns’ ability to earn credit or prevent them from graduating,” she said in an email, adding that the annual program typically brings on seven students from Owatonna High School.

While Graupmann was nervous at first about the impact this could have on full-time employment after graduation, she got a call from the company three weeks after the internship ended with the offer of a job interview and — with social distancing procedures still firmly in place — began preparing to answer questions over a video call.

‘Shorter-term investment’ hit hardest

Graupmann isn’t the only one whose internship plans have been impacted by the pandemic. As commencement and summer vacation near for colleges across southern Minnesota, career planning offices — a both the high school and college level — are also trying to find ways to keep internship opportunities available for their students.

“This is a time of high activity, especially for seniors to really crystallize what their next response is going to be,” said Andrew Coston, executive director of the Center for Career Development at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. “They would have developed a resume by now, many of them have been going to interviews for several months and attending career fairs.”

Whether students are looking for full-time, temporary or internship positions, he said many are still waiting to hammer down the details of what they’ll do when classes end for the year. Even for soon-to-be graduates, Coston said a number turn to internships to bolster their experience in a field before applying for a full-time, entry-level position.

“The transition has been made to looking at how internships can be done remotely, and if — in fact — they can,” he added. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised that there’s been a willingness by many in the business community to do that, if they can. Other companies may have had financial losses dues to COVID-19 or other circumstances that wouldn’t allow them to support an internship program the way they would have in the past.”

While some opportunities have disappeared entirely, he added that other internships which would have been paid a few years ago are now being offered at an unpaid status. In this case, like many colleges, Gustavus has funding that students can apply for to offset living expenses while doing unpaid work.

In Northfield, St. Olaf College has two internship funds available for unpaid or underpaid opportunities — one for all students, and an additional pool for those who have a higher financial need, which has broader parameters and is able to help fund pre-professional experience.

Kirsten Cahoon, senior associate director of the college’s Piper Center for Vocation and Career, said that both grants are still being offered this summer — although with a few new parameters, primarily concerning the location of the work. According to the school’s website, only students who are completing these opportunities in Northfield, the Twin Cities or at home will be eligible to receive money through the grants.

“We want to mitigate the risk to students’ health and safety, as much as possible,” added Cahoon, of the policy change. “It’s also mitigating the college’s risk. If we were to fund the experience, and the student were to get ill or have any kind of problem, we want to make sure that they’re protected and that the college is protected.”

While seniors are also entering a difficult employment landscape, Cahoon added that it’s these internships and summer opportunities that seem to be getting hit the hardest.

“If a student hadn’t set up an internship before this hit, it’s proving to be much more difficult to find or land something,” she said. “The summer is going to be really unpredictable, and that shorter-term investment is getting the hit.”

Brief, project-based opportunities?

Like Coston, Cahoon said that her office is also trying to find ways to make internships and similar temporary opportunities remote. Methods that St. Olaf is exploring include expanding its cohort internship program and trying to source more “micro-internships.”

“A micro-internship would be a two- to six-week project where a student can gain experience tackling something an employer has on the back burner,” said Cahoon. “We’re enlisting alumni, parents and our employer partners to offer up these short-term projects as a way for students to build experience and take part in something remote, but still valuable.”

So far, she added that the response has been positive, and that the small liberal arts college has been able to rely especially on its alumni network to provide these types of opportunities. When it comes to the ease or difficulty of finding internships, Cahoon added that it varies by field.

“One of the areas that we’re having trouble with would be health care-related opportunities. Students who had internships planned in hospitals or clinics, that’s going to be really hard to emulate,” she said. “We’re trying to partner with the University of Minnesota and some physicians there to create online classes and project-based work, to get around not being able to be in a real clinical setting this summer.”

Some successes for students

For soon-to-be high school graduates in Steele County, Zak said many of the full-time manufacturing jobs she can usually place students into are temporarily unavailable. However, summer work in manufacturing looks like it will continue to be a source of seasonal employment for the teens she works with who are able to work in-person.

“I’m also helping students get their resumes updated and get their reference list made, reaching out to any coaches and teachers they have. Then, when they do apply, they have that list ready to go,” she added. “This is an interesting time — I’ve never really had the time to do this with the students because before, it was about hurrying up and getting a job.”

Zak, who began in her role three years ago, added that she has now had the time to go back and reach out to every student that she has worked with since 2017 — attempting, like her collegiate counterparts, to build a strong alumni network and also help with any recent graduates who may now be facing unemployment.

“My main focus now is on outreach to employers, to let them know I’m still here, and reaching out to program alumni,” she said.

One of her soon-to-be alumni, Graupmann, is now focused on gearing up for a full-time job starting at Federated this summer. After an hour-and-a-half long virtual conversation, she was offered the position and plans to start in early June.

Reporter Bridget Kranz can be reached at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPBridget. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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