After spending most of her university life at home due to the Covid pandemic, 22-year-old Martha Storey was looking forward to a summer placement at one of the UK’s biggest financial services firms last year.
But the experience was not what she had hoped for.
“Most of the team lived outside of London and commuted in one or two days a week . . . I was living in a tiny flat that was baking hot, so it was sometimes unbearable to work from home,” she said. “[But] there were some days when I was the only member of my team in the office . . . It made the office a lonelier place to be.”
Storey’s frustration is increasingly common among ambitious young people hoping that an internship or placement at a big bank, law firm or accountant will provide a golden ticket to a lucrative City career.
Since the Covid pandemic, the shift to remote working has upended office life, and with it the face-to-face experience of summer internships where recruits vie to impress employers, and companies assess budding talent.
Faced with the new hybrid workplace, managers and interns have been forced to adapt to help interns fit in and thrive.
Schemes are still on offer
Despite job cuts and an economic downturn, firms do not appear to have put the brakes on internship schemes. They have learnt lessons from the pandemic, when cancellations disrupted their talent pipeline.
In 2022, the number of summer internships and placements bounced back beyond pre-pandemic levels, according to the Institute of Student Employers, which in a survey of 168 large employers found hiring was up 7 per cent compared with 2019. For this summer, companies said they hired as many interns or more than last year.
Professional services companies PwC and KPMG and big banks like HSBC are among those offering hundreds of internship places apiece, ranging from a few weeks to several months. The most coveted schemes, at high-profile multinationals like Goldman Sachs, have an acceptance rate of little more than 1 in 100, and once interns are in the building the stakes are just as high.
“In order to get ahead, you have to go above and beyond,” said one former Bank of America intern.
Adjusting to hybrid working
Several firms in accounting, banking and law said their interns were determined to work in the office as much as possible, despite hybrid working policies that allowed working from home.
“Interns are super keen to be on site, to have as much proximity to senior leadership as possible and really dig their hands into proper work,” said Louise Fitzgerald-Lombard, head of HR for global markets at BNP Paribas.
PwC said interns came into the office on average four days a week, more than other employees, despite being allowed to work from home two or three times a week.
Other businesses encourage or specifically require younger staff to work in-person. At law firm Linklaters, trainees only spend one day at home per week, compared with two days for other staff.
“A lot of the learning happens in and around doing actual work, by watching senior lawyers,” said Linklaters partner Mark Drury. “That’s a lot easier to do when you are in a room together.”
Having younger staff around is good for employers, too. James Marriott, head of debt capital markets at bank Wells Fargo, said internships gave managers a “great opportunity” to assess potential recruits. “The best form of interviewing is to work with someone.”
Socialising the workforce
However, in an era of hybrid working and with many colleagues at home, building face-to-face connections has become harder.
“[It’s] a problem,” said Eliza Filby, a historian who advises firms on generational differences. “The millennial demographic, who directly manage the younger cohorts, live further away, have smaller children [and are] the least likely to want to be in the office.”
Thomas Harbor, 27, said a lack of socialising during an internship in the pandemic “killed” his interest in consulting. “You don’t share any of the office talk, lunch talk and the way you make friends, and with that it can start to feel very lonely,” he said.
Employers recognise they need to address these concerns to attract and retain staff.
Linklaters and HSBC have “training buddies” systems that pair interns with mentors, while law firm Allen & Overy has developed guidance for how supervisors can support trainees in hybrid working.
Filby said many businesses were taking young recruits to meet clients earlier than usual, to involve them in “high stakes situations” and make roles feel worthwhile.
Firms are also bringing structure to social activities. KPMG has extended its induction for young recruits to five days and introduced a new social mixer, which it said had proved a hit and helped tackle “feelings of apprehension”.
The intern class of 2023 is already at a disadvantage. Most of this year’s cohort are entering the workplace from a turbulent university or school experience, when classes, activities and socialising were suspended or moved online by lockdowns.
Several firms said interns experienced confidence and communication difficulties. “New recruits are lacking in essential human skills, whether it’s public speaking, conflict resolution, eye contact, telephone etiquette,” said Filby.
When Katerina Maijorova, 23, started interning at auditors KPMG last year, she had done most of her accounting degree from home, and had last attended a formal in-person setting in high school.
“I was very, very nervous,” said Maijorova. After years of mostly virtual classes, she found it hard to make small talk with clients. “In the face-to-face world, you don’t know what to talk about or what the proper topics are,” she said. “It’s a new skill.”
PwC is among several firms trialling coaching programmes to tackle skill gaps in new recruits. BNP’s Fitzgerald-Lombard, however, said interns’ fears could be misplaced: despite young people’s nervousness, she is often “blown away” by their ability to command a room. “It’s more of a confidence issue,” she said.
Interns and employers still see silver linings in the hybrid workplace.
Companies such as HSBC said new virtual internships, short experiences offered online to a larger number of students or graduates, had improved diversity by offering an accessible way in to the company.
Online communication can also increase interactions, allowing young recruits more face time with senior leaders or colleagues overseas.
“More people are allowed on calls and Zooms than would previously have been allowed in a physical room,” said Harbor, now a lawyer for Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, an American firm in Brussels. “They wouldn’t have previously taken so many juniors to meet a client.”
For some young recruits too, internships remain a way to assess what prospective workplaces offer, including face-to-face support, relationships with colleagues and a chance to get noticed. When companies fall short, they risk losing talented staff.
After a summer in half-empty offices at her financial services internship, Storey ultimately declined a permanent role. The experience, she judged, “wasn’t super stimulating . . . It wasn’t what I anticipated”.