This spring, companies in almost all industries were forced to rescind internship offers and cancel programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But early on, health technology company Abbott (No. 8 on the 2020 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list) decided that its high school and college internship programs were too important to its talent development strategy to cancel, especially because every year more than 60% of its interns become Abbott employees. The company swiftly transitioned its internships to a remote, online-only format.
“This year, when things changed, it was not even a question for us whether we were going to [facilitate the internships] or not. We acknowledged the challenges around it, but the only question we asked ourselves was how we were going to do it,” Vildan Kehr, divisional vice president of global talent acquisition at Abbott, said. Kehr is responsible for leading Abbott’s internship programs which focus on all of Abbott’s business areas for more than 200 high school and college interns.
Yasmine Wilford, a rising sophomore studying chemical engineering at Ohio State University, is participating in her fourth Abbott internship this summer. Her internships in high school focused on professional development, and now that she’s in college, she is learning how to hone her skills in third-party manufacturing quality assurance.
When her college began offering courses solely online and many companies began revoking internships, Wilford said she did not worry about the program at Abbott being canceled. “I felt pretty good about what was going on, just because of how many updates that we got about how the internship was going to actually be heading out with being an online one,” Wilford explained.
Keeping the interns in the loop about how Abbott was adapting the internship program as the pandemic developed was important to the company, Kehr said.
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One of the first decisions the company made was to reduce the program’s length from 12 weeks to nine weeks, while still committing to paying the interns for the promised 12 weeks. “Everything evolved so fast, and everything brought its new challenges … Every day we assessed the external market and assessed our individual capabilities,” Kehr explained.
Abbott also developed an internship portal app about two years ago. This year, it expanded the app’s capabilities to allow interns to work 100% online. It broadened the training materials available on the app and set up channels for interns to connect in real-time with executives, coaches and mentors. Before the program even began, internship organizers worked to engage the students via the app to help them acclimate. For the first two weeks of the program, the company also trained interns on digital skills like communicating effectively over email and presenting projects virtually.
An important aspect of Abbott’s internship program has been mentorship, which has been able to continue online. Abbott facilitates mentorship by connecting college interns with high school interns and current employees with college interns.
Abbott employee LaMiah Tysinger graduated from North Carolina A&T State University in May with a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering. After taking part in Abbott’s internship programs in both high school and college, she now works for Abbott as an enterprise excellence trainer, working with new operators on the assembly processes for the company’s COVID-19 tests. Tysinger is still connected to the internship program as a mentor of a college intern. Wilford mentors a high school intern, while also being the mentee of a full-time employee.
The mentors give advice to help their mentees adapt to the professional environment and plan their careers. These meetings between mentors and mentees have been happening via phone, video chat and the intern app rather than in person, but that has not prevented them from being fulfilling.
“I think it’s easier because we’re all in our comfortable spaces and we’re able to kind of open up a bit more,” Wilford said.
Tysinger said her former internship experiences at Abbott prepared her to take on the career she has today. During these programs, she gained experience in agriculture and nutrition, supply chain and quality assurance.
One of her experiences, working in Abbott diabetes care on its FreeStyle Libre blood sugar monitoring product, is an assignment some interns now have to complete virtually. Interns this year will also be working with the FreeStyle Libre product in data analysis and intelligence to better analyze customer needs. Whereas the assignments used to take place in the office, now all of the resources the interns’ need and the experts they will connect with will be listed on the app.
“We used to have that kind of an assignment in the office because then they have access to multiple technology platforms,” Kehr said. “They can talk to medical doctors or IT team, they can walk in the hallways and gather a lot of information. So, we turned this into a virtual assignment and the way we were able to set the person up for success — we ensured that all those platforms that he or she needs to access are secured on his or her device.”
This same approach goes for other projects, like those Wilford is working on in the area of quality assurance. Now, Wilford said, she finds the online assignments just as valuable as the work she has done in person, especially when it comes to the opportunities to network.
“I feel like I’ve been able to network and keep connections better. Starting up a conversation is pretty simple for me. But continuing that conversation takes effort. And that’s what I’ve been able to work on,” she said.
Kehr added that interns have more opportunities to connect with leaders now than they did in the office. Access to Abbott’s leadership has been a pillar of its program, and the digital platform interns use has helped them to connect with more leaders in real-time than they’d been able to in the past.
“It’s made us more innovative [and] it’s made us more relevant. From interns’ perspectives, I think they’re getting more and more training and more and more exposure to executive leaders,” Kehr said.
Remaining engaging and inclusive in a virtual setting is a challenge Abbott worked to take on, Kehr explained. The constant channels of communication on Abbott’s app have helped interns feel connected. Effective communication is also crucial in maintaining an inclusive environment. Part of what makes Abbott’s internship an important part of its talent pipeline-building is its diversity. More that 70% of high school interns and more than 40% of college interns are women and/or minorities. As interns like Tysinger become full-time employees, Abbott develops a diverse talent pool.
“Abbott really opens the door to everyone, you know, people from different backgrounds, different points of view, different experiences in life and they allow us to be who we really are at work. And that combination is what really helps to create confidence,” Tysinger said.