MARGRETTA MURPHY, MS, CIH, CSP, NRCC-CHO, is an EHS manager at the University of Arizona and secretary of AIHA’s Student and Early Career Professionals Committee.
This article is a continuation of April 2021’s Professional Growth column, “Support and Success for Remote Internships.” The author thanks the following contributors and interviewees for this article: Hope Heichel, Katherine Parker, Isabella Kenny, Esteban Cardona, Taiwo Oyadiran, and April Ames.
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Remote Internships: Lessons Learned Since Spring 2020
Beginning an internship is an exciting but often daunting affair under normal circumstances—but it is a completely novel challenge during a pandemic. When the traditional internship season began in 2020, many students and employers felt trepidation at the idea of completely remote occupational and environmental health and safety internships. They expressed concern that remote internships would result in a lack of hands-on experience with instrumentation, loss of formative workplace experiences, and detachment from host teams. Despite the uncertainties, interns and hosts persisted. This column shares some of the lessons they learned.
Remote interns found effective communication—difficult to achieve even in ideal workplaces—to be a serious challenge. Esteban Cardona, a recent University of Arizona MPH graduate, observed that if he didn't understand instructions conveyed to him by email, he would have to schedule a meeting for clarification, which delayed work on the task. Hosts and mentors struggled to craft detailed emails to interns that included expectations, timelines, and answers to questions, finding them more time-consuming compared to in-person conversations.
Remote interns also reported that more screen time made it hard to stay motivated and on track with deliverables. The lack of face time with their hosts and mentors contributed to feelings of detachment; interns felt that it was hard to develop relationships and rapport over a Zoom call. And many internship tasks, intended to build hands-on skills, could not be completed online.
BENEFITS Still, both interns and hosts reported positive experiences over the 2020 internship season. Isabella Kenny, another recent University of Arizona MPH graduate, reported that the best part about her remote internship was the format’s flexibility. "I was able to adjust heavy and light workweeks to fit my schedule," she said. Interns were not required to leave home for an extended period to travel to a work site.
Taiwo Oyadiran, a graduate student in Occupational Health and Industrial Hygiene at the University of Toledo, said her remote internship taught her that “being an industrial hygienist is not just about sampling and active work environments.” The format allows students to develop their research skills and foster self-reliance.
Meeting the next generation where they are, especially those who may be unable to attend expensive, in- person conferences to learn or network, may keep them in the OEHS pipeline.
Likewise, hosts reported that the ability to mentor and teach on their own time and holding fewer, shorter meetings helped them support interns while maintaining their own productivity. Hosts also cited the economic, legal, and logistical benefits of remote internships.
NEXT STEPS The challenges presented by remote internships could mean they will be less prevalent once it is safe to go to work in person again. However, they may be the best chance for the OEHS profession to maintain a pipeline and train the next generation. The recent AIHA strategic plan survey results support this notion: AIHA members’ priorities included promoting awareness of the OEHS profession and “filling the pipeline” by attracting new talent to the profession. What better way to meet these needs than by providing future OEHS professionals with a convenient means to gain experience and network?
Meeting the next generation where they are, especially those who may be unable to attend expensive, in-person conferences to learn or network, may keep them in the OEHS pipeline. And as we aim to improve our diversity, equity, and inclusion, remote internships can make OEHS education more accessible to “non-traditional” students, particularly since there are currently only 25 ABET-accredited industrial hygiene programs in the United States. Overall, despite the challenges, the ability to transmit OEHS skills to a broader audience and support young professionals presents a sound case for permanently adopting remote or hybrid internship programs.