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Exploring online internships amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020: Results from case study #3: Employer-led online internship – College Recruiter

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This is the seventh of eight articles in this series. Click here to go to first article in this series. If you’re searching for a remote internship, go to our search results page that lists all of the remote internships and other entry-level jobs advertised on College Recruiter and then drill down as you wish by adding your desired category, location, company, or job type.

In this final set of data from our study of online internships during the COVID-19 pandemic, we offer a
short case study of a single organization who offered such a program to college students in 2020. We
contend that examples of successful and well-designed online internships are important to not only
counterbalance the somewhat discouraging findings from other part of our study (as there are bright
spots in the field), but also to highlight the employer perspective on an internship program and to provide
clear examples to readers and internship practitioners of what an effective online internship looks like in
practice. The information in this brief case is based on an interview with a company representative, and
analysis of documents and videos from the organization.

Background and context of the internship program

TreeHouse Foods is a large multinational company that has over $4 billion in annual sales, so it is first
important to recognize that the internship program profiled here is not representative of programs in
small- and medium-sized organizations, or the non-profit or government sector. The differences between
internships across these dimensions are complex, but here we highlight the fact that larger firms likely have
more capacity to design and operate high-quality internships at scale, and that their rationale for engaging
in an internship may vary from other organizations. In the case of TreeHouse Foods, the reason for having
an internship is clearly about talent recruitment. In a promotional video, a manager in the financial unit says
that the internship program is “absolutely the way we’re going to bring people into the organization,” so it
is important to recognize at the outset that the intent of this employer—which can be a key determinant in
how an internship is organized and experienced by the intern—is that of talent recruitment and not public
service, inexpensive labor, contract work, or short-term career exploration opportunities.

The organization is very large with over 10,000 employees across its various divisions, which include
approximately 8,000 staff in over 40 different manufacturing facilities around the world (but with many in
the Upper Midwest), and 2,000 professional staff. About 500 of these professional staff, which includes
management, human resources, sales and marketing, and related functions, are located in corporate
headquarters in a major city in the Midwestern U.S.

The internship program at TreeHouse Foods is about 5 years old, and interns are placed in different core
functions across the firm (and in different locations) including financial services, sales, engineering, quality,
supply chain, human resources, and research and development.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization had approximately 30 in-person interns a year, with no
dedicated internship coordinator but a handful of human resources staff and managers across functions
working to supervise and manage the interns. These professionals, it should be noted, took on these
student interns to work on projects that were meaningful to the company, which likely required a not
inconsiderable amount of their time. For student interns at TreeHouse Foods the conversion rate (how
many interns receiving full-time job offers actually take them) in recent years has been about 1/3, which is
satisfying the goal of recruitment and talent development.

How the internship program is structured

The internships at TreeHouse Foods last approximately 10 weeks and are built around a single project
that staff at the firm identify for promising internship projects or entry level functional activity. In the
early years of the internship program, the company realized that they needed to clearly identify, define
and assign authentic tasks as soon as the internship started, and so now the company spends time in the
months prior to the internship identifying these projects.

Some of the projects that student interns pursued in 2020 included a chemical engineering student
working on a large-scale water reclamation project, a business student working on a pricing optimization
project using real data from the firm, a sales student creating (and delivering) authentic presentations to
clients, and a business student performing a capital analysis that involved benchmarking firm activities
against competitors. These projects typically involve 3-4 people that represent the team who works with
the intern over the course of their 10-week experience. The weekly schedule for the program includes the
following:

The “Lessons with Leaders” activity is a regular meeting where student interns meet with a leader across
the firm, who speaks about their career pathways, what they do at the firm, and answer any questions
students may have about the company, career opportunities, and so on. Another activity is the “intern
showcase” where students learn about other departments and share the results of their project with a
larger group. These are examples of structured opportunities for students to gain exposure across multiple
teams, learn from leadership that they normally would not encounter, and to generally create a sense of a
culture of professional development.

What TreeHouse Foods did during the COVID-19 pandemic

Once the pandemic truly hit U.S. society in March of 2020, with closures of sports leagues, schools and
many basic services, TreeHouse Foods initially sent its non-production workforce home and hit the pause
button on the internship program. The coordinators asked themselves if they wanted to proceed with an
online program, which would involve a considerable amount of work to tweak projects so that they could
be performed online, to ensure that all interns had sufficient IT and internet access, and to shift to a remote
work situation across all team members while also managing student interns. Only one function ended up
cancelling internships in 2020. However, overwhelming majority of functions decided to forge ahead with
the change given the centrality of the program for recruitment, and the fact that top leadership in the firm
are big advocates of internships as a form of experiential education and recruitment. Thus, the firm decided
to move ahead with online positions following the same schedule as usual—start in early summer and finish
towards the end of August.

Once this decision was made, students were notified and the firm shipped laptops around the country for
the interns. Perhaps the biggest challenge from the company’s perspective was to build the curriculum and
provide students a “real experience” of the workplace at TreeHouse Foods, and to do so they found that
three things were critical to make the experience meaningful and socially engaging for the interns:

Lessons learned and next steps

As noted in our review of the literature on online internships, remote work, and digital learning, finding
ways to make communications and tasks both relevant and effective is a key element of a successful
experience, and in 2020 it appears that TreeHouse Foods was successful in doing this for their interns.
Having the foundation of well-designed project-based internships was certainly an advantage for the
company, along with some experience in having teams located across different offices and time zones,
which made the switch to online less of a massive overhaul of a program than for organizations with no
such prior experience. To conclude this brief case study, we share two lessons learned that our respondent
shared with us, that may inform the internship program at TreeHouse Foods in a post-pandemic world.

Remote work skills and arrangements are important but not the future “normal state”

As one employee shared with us, while remote work and the skills required to work virtually will remain
an important part of professional life at TreeHouse Foods, they were not at the “top of their mind” when it
came to the goals of the internship or future skill needs in their firm. Instead, he stated that the company
has an “office culture” and is hoping to return to that in the future. However, as work preferences evolve,
TreeHouse Foods will likely move towards a hybrid model, meaning the majority of office employees would
split their time between the office and working remotely. While the relative emphasis on remote work skills
will vary from organization to organization, it may be premature to declare that remote work is “the future”
across the entire labor market. That said, with more larger companies like TreeHouse Foods having offices
in multiple locations, learning how to work remotely with team members who are not physically present is
highly likely to be a skill that will be useful for college graduates in the coming years.

Continuous improvement

Another issue we highlight with TreeHouse Food’s internship program is the apparent commitment to
continuous improvement, which is a core principle in many business and management operations as well
as some approaches to educational reform (e.g., Mandinach, 2012). In a video, a HR professional at the
company states that current interns will help to shape future programs by, “telling us what works, what didn’t,
what we could improve upon.” This approach to continuously refining and updating the program is one of
the hallmarks of effective internship programming, whether online or in-person, and is an approach that is
especially important in a post-pandemic landscape. While any updates or changes made to the internship
program based on feedback from the experiences of 2020 are not yet apparent, it will be important for
organizations—especially those continuing to maintain some form of remote work arrangements—to be
attentive to the problems of 2020 and to improve them for students in 2021 and onward.

— This is the seventh of eight articles in this series. Click here to go to next article in this series. This series of articles is courtesy of the University of Wisconsin (Madison) Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT). To download the full report, go to http://ccwt.wceruw.org/research/technicalreports.html 

This content was originally published here.

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