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Summer internships long have been a pathway to jobs for college students and a source of burgeoning talent for employers.

With the pandemic canceling many programs, only 22% of college students took an internship in 2020, according to the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Internships have rebounded since, with 62% of last year's graduating seniors taking part in an internship during college, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reported.

But those recent interns likely experienced a different internship program than those from even a few years ago. To navigate the evolving state of the modern internship, here is advice on how to meet the changing needs — of both interns and companies — from businesses, organizations and a couple of recent interns themselves.

Make a commitment

Rather than drop its 2020 summer internship program, Minnetronix Medical expanded it from a dozen interns to 30, with some working remotely, according to Carolyn Baldus, director of communications at the St. Paul-based medical technology manufacturer.

The program keeps expanding as the company grows, Baldus said. Some interns work during the school year, and graduate student internships are now available as well. Minnetronix said it pays its interns a competitive rate.

Internship programs are a big commitment in time and resources, Baldus said. Each intern at Minnetronix has a technical mentor and a "buddy" in a newer employee. Interns also don't just fetch coffee. They do real work like helping on project teams, Baldus said. Interns also want to learn more about the business through its "lunch with leaders" program or by rotating through various departments during their stint.

Axelle Akaffou, a quality system and training intern at Minnetronix, had her June-to-August internship extended through December. As her confidence grew, Akaffou began leading onboarding sessions for new employees.

Akaffou applied learning from her internship to her capstone course as she pursues a master of science degree in regulatory affairs at the University of St. Thomas.

"It's not just random work," Akaffou said. "It's projects you can take charge of. You can put your name on and say, I did this, and I made the business grow as well."

Foster diversity

In 2021, the Minnesota Vikings transformed the team's internship program into a yearlong Associate Leadership Development Program. It aligns with the organization's values, including a commitment to a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment, said Andrew Miller, the team's chief operating officer.

"For us to connect with our fans, we need to incorporate people with different life experiences, backgrounds and perspectives that can adapt to the evolving environment," Miller said.

Associates, typically recent graduates, are full-time employees, according to Anne Doepner, the team's senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion. The 30 associates work across the football and business operations and earn $18 an hour, according to the Vikings' website.

Most Vikings associates move to the Twin Cities from other states, said Anita Adjei-Wiafe, the team's director of people and culture. The organization offers relocation assistance.

"We try our best to create that internal community for them," Adjei-Wiafe said. "We also provide resources, especially when it comes to winter driving, those little things that help them feel that they're settled in."

Imani McCormick, the team's diversity, equity and inclusion associate, led the Vikings' collaboration with the Lynx, Timberwolves and Twins to host the three-day Hashtag Sports Creators of Color Empowerment Summit.

"A lot of internships are busy work," McCormick said. "And this is not."

Encourage networking

The No. 1 thing interns want, McCormick said, is opportunities to network and develop leadership skills within their organization and beyond.

"Sports and entertainment is an industry where relationships are gold," McCormick said.

Interns should emphasize networking, said Ieesha McKinzie Collins, managing director of ConnextMSP. That's the inclusive talent network that Greater MSP, the Twin Cities' regional development organization, launched to help local employers recruit and hire young diverse professionals.

In addition to direct supervisors, interns should have coffee or meet with other leaders regularly to learn about their career paths, McKinzie Collins said. Keep those connections fresh by emailing contacts quarterly to report how you're doing in school or share a new milestone.

"Bring your authentic self to the space and be curious," McKinzie Collins said. "Showcase who you are and what you bring to the table quickly as you come into the organization."

Programs should tailor interns' work to their interests and give them multiple experiences to help them focus on what they want to do, she said.

Greater MSP has created an internship hub, developed in partnership with the University of Minnesota's College of Liberal Arts, with resources for employers on managing and engaging with interns.

"A lot of diverse talent has left Minnesota," McKinzie Collins said. "We're encouraging employers to think differently about recruiting at some of our local community colleges or tapping more closely into our local community as opposed to recruiting in other states."

Plan ahead

Companies, for their parts, should have projects planned and mentors in place before interns arrive, said Piper Cleaveland, program director of the Minnesota Technology Association's SciTech Internship Program.

Interns value making end-of-internship presentations about their work, Cleaveland said.

"A chance for students to present and show what they've been working on, what they've accomplished, really rounds out the experience," Cleaveland said.

SciTech connects college students in science, technology, engineering and math to paid internships in small companies with fewer than 250 employees. The state pays employers a reimbursement of up to $2,500 to cover at least 50% of the intern's wages.

To reach students underrepresented in STEM industries, SciTech sponsors diverse student affinity groups at the U and on other campuses, Cleaveland said.

Pay it forward

The share of paid internships this year increased to 59%, up from 50% to 55% through the past decade, according to NACE, the nonprofit research organization.

NACE has called for Congress to pass legislation requiring internship programs to pay. Students in paid internships receive more job offers and higher median starting salaries than unpaid interns. Diverse students are underrepresented in paid internships.

Doing unpaid labor is difficult if not impossible for students who can't forgo a paycheck, said Josh Kahn, associate director of research and public policy at NACE.

Students could try to receive college credit for an unpaid internship as a way to earn some kind of compensation for unpaid internships, but that's not always a great solution.

"They are purchasing credits, doing unpaid labor for those credits, and as a kicker, many times employers say they use those credits as justification for why they don't have to pay the intern," Kahn said.

In some professions — often low-paying ones such as nursing, social work and teaching — licensing agencies require students to do unpaid internships, Kahn said. Agencies that give accreditation to universities also might require unpaid internships.

That distinction stems from a long-standing notion that paid interns are doing professional work while unpaid interns are doing academic work. That, however, has become outdated, Kahn said, especially with college populations skewing older to include first-generation students or parents going back to school.

"That speaks to who can access unpaid internships, and that generally is people with more means, people with more social capital, people with more monetary capital," Kahn said. "That is something that we wanted to call out and say is unfair, unreasonable, and ultimately, hurts the diversity of our workforce."

Expand the network

NACE is encouraging employers to seek interns from historically Black colleges and universities.

"It's a sustainable way of diversifying a workforce," Kahn said.

That's already happening at Minneapolis ad agency Solve, which partnered with Morgan State University in Baltimore after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Solve executives since have taught more than 80 students, hoping to generate interest in an industry lacking in diversity among executives and staffers.

After the first year, Solve began hiring three Morgan State interns each summer. Working remotely, they are paid and work 20-25 hours a week.

"The objective here is bringing more diversity into advertising," said Andrew Pautz, director of business development and partner at Solve, "to inspire other agencies to find ways to stretch outside your own walls to help create positive change."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is