If you’ve been forced to work virtually at any point in the last 10 months, then you’re likely familiar with the struggles of remote work. From full-day Zoom meetings to non-stop Slack messages, the entire work experience has deviated from what employees were formerly accustomed to.
The same goes for interns, who, rather than mapping out their new bus route to work and mentally preparing for an awkward lunch with their new manager, now get their taste of the “real-world” from their childhood bedroom.
That is, if the student is fortunate enough to find a placement, as many companies have cancelled their internship programs, or don’t have the resources to bring on a new team member for the time-being.
Data from the University of Waterloo has shown that student employment rates have decreased compared to this time last year as a result of the pandemic. But for those students who did find employment, what has the experience been like working remotely? And what exactly does the future of internships look like?
When people were sent home to work remotely back in March 2020, ambitious interns finished up their jobs virtually as they waved a half-hearted goodbye to their teams via Zoom. What’s more strange is that many students ,in the spring and fall terms, started and finished their work placements virtually, never meeting their co-workers in-person. While there were challenges for students, including technical difficulties and loss of collaboration opportunities, there were in fact some positive outcomes from the work from home life.
It was revealed by a WxL Institute study that 87 per cent of Waterloo students reported a smooth transition to work from home during the initial stage of pandemic. Students reported that the flexibility in hours, relaxed dress codes (sweatpants are the new slacks), and more independence were certainly positive changes.
I spoke with upper year student Nicole Riddle, who found herself in the middle of an eight month co-op term when the pandemic hit. “This experience is something I can now carry with me as I attempt to navigate what is now a digital working world,” Riddle said. She mentioned how working remotely improved her wellbeing by creating more opportunities to take walks and workout – activities that were harder to make time for with a traditional work schedule.
However, many students are finding it difficult to secure a job. To address the problem, the Co-op department has made use of new hiring strategies like supporting employers with the capacity to “bulk hire” hundreds of students and targeting small businesses. They also introduced flexibility into the process to allow for quicker hiring and shorter hiring cycles, amongst other new initiatives. While all these changes are excellent for UW students, the question of what co-op will look like in the future remains unanswered.
When I posed this question to the UW co-op department, I received an optimistic response from Ross Johnston, Executive Director, Co-operative Education. “While there is a lot of uncertainty about the future of work, and what that will look like for co-op and work-integrated learning, we do know that there are strong supports in place at the University, in industry, and through the federal government to build these opportunities. At Waterloo, we’ve been helping our students develop future-ready skills to enable them to succeed in the future workplace, no matter what it looks like.”
Internships, like everything else, have been flipped upside down by COVID-19, robbing students of great hands-on learning opportunities. Although it’s uncertain what the long term implications will be, the remote working style has presented more flexibility, innovation, and new possibilities for co-op placements. Just think that placement in Dubai you dreamed of applying to may be more attainable in the new digital world.
If you’re currently a co-op student, below are some helpful resources:
- Resource page for students who haven’t yet found employment for this term.
- Free Digital Skills Fundamentals courses in conjunction with industry partners like Shopify, Vidyard, Kiite Academy, the Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business, and Larry Smith of The Problem Lab to help students improve their digital skills, and help employers transition to a digital environment.
- Supports for remote work terms, including new resources developed for both co-op students and co-op employers.