How U.S. Bank remade its summer internship for social-distancing era

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Molly Neterer, a senior at the University of Indiana, accepted her offer for a summer internship at U.S. Bank last Thanksgiving. By March, the Minneapolis bank, like many other companies, faced a predicament: Do organizers keep planning for an in-person experience, adapt the program to an online setting or cancel it altogether?

U.S. Bank decided to adapt. The institution delayed the start date to late June, trimmed the 10-week program down to six and redid the schedule.

“I was really grateful,” said Neterer. “I had a lot of friends whose internships were canceled or shortened to one week. It was great to have six weeks to dive into different work.”

Summer internships are a key source of new talent for U.S. Bank, said Penny Momon, campus recruiting director at U.S. Bank.

“We committed not just to [the 10-week] salary but to a robust experience,” she said. “We recognized that this was the right thing to do to keep our commitment, and we also recognized it would help us continue that talent pipeline to the company.”

Many banks feel similarly about devising a meaningful experience for their summer interns, who can land jobs when things go well. Missing out on a fresh pool of talent now could lead to a gap down the road.

Last year, interns were spread across U.S. Bank offices in 30 cities. This year, there were no impromptu meetups, and there was no way to pull one’s chair around to chat with a supervisor.

Ben Stevenson, summer intern at U.S. Bank with the public affairs and communications team.
To ensure a robust experience for its 400 interns, including Ben Stevenson (pictured) who worked with the public affairs and communications team, U.S. Bank set up a dedicated call center for the interns and moved projects, networking and social events onto Webex.

But the bank’s first remote experience shows that there are benefits to an all-virtual intern program — benefits that were occasionally superior to the in-person versions — and that simplifying the technology for interns is something to consider for the future.

One of the earliest items on U.S. Bank’s agenda was to survey its 400 interns to figure out how much hardware it had to provide for them. Normally, the bank works with managers to order equipment, but a shortage of laptops forced organizers to look for other solutions.

Instead, they landed on thin clients — small, lightweight computers that rely on a remote server through a secured data connection. About 10% of interns opted for a thin client; the rest stuck with their personal devices, connecting to the U.S. bank network and whatever software they needed through a virtual desktop interface.

Sending thin clients instead of reimaged laptops let U.S. Bank disseminate equipment “a lot more quickly and for less cost, and it was virtually the same experience for the intern,” said Momon. “I’m certain we would not have discovered that prior.”

Intern onboarding and meetings happened primarily via Webex. The campus recruiting team also arranged for a dedicated call center for the interns to troubleshoot technical issues. Data from the call center will help inform future FAQs and onboarding materials for interns and their managers.

Neterer served on the loan capital markets team, rotating through groups of analysts and associates. In one project, she updated slides that summarized what happened in the financial markets over a given week and that bankers could share with clients.

“One of the positives of being virtual was I could reach out to people regardless of location for a quick phone call,” she said. “I talked to people all over the U.S. that I probably wouldn’t have if I had been in an office.”

Other hallmarks of U.S. Bank’s internship program translated reasonably well to a virtual realm. Interns could choose from around 10 virtual volunteering events, such as reading online to children or sending cards to first responders. Trivia nights and online escape rooms served as after-hours social events.

The traditional “case study,” where interns team up to devise and pitch a new product or marketing idea to management (this year, under the payment services umbrella) in a bracket-style competition, also continued online.

“If there was ever a generation suited for this kind of 100% online, remote internship, it’s mine,” Ben Stevenson, a summer intern on the public affairs and communications team, wrote in a blog post on the U.S. Bank website. “Gen Z has an inherent advantage because we’re all bona fide digital natives.”

One reason is this age group is already used to conducting meetings online. “While not being able to talk to team members in person isn’t ideal for some, I’ve been using group chats to coordinate team projects as long as I can remember,” wrote Stevenson.

The regular “lunch with leaders” events perhaps worked out even better. Room capacity in the Minneapolis headquarters normally limits how many interns can attend each discussion with Chairman and CEO Andrew Cecere and members of the managing committee executive leadership team. But without the constraints of a physical location, all 400 interns could attend each one and ask questions live on video.

“It was awesome to jump on video and see them answer your question,” said Neterer, who posed five questions.

Other elements are inevitably harder to replicate online. Neterer recognizes that she missed out on the everyday banter that can educate those starting out.

“There’s a different language you have to pick up on with banking,” she said. “I think that set me back in not understanding everything I could have.”

Still, she emphasizes she had a positive experience — and that some of the lessons will serve her well in the school year.

“Even if you don’t have your manager sitting next to you, you still had to be doing something to get the most out of the internship,” she said. “I think bringing that lesson to school will help me get the most out of my virtual classes next semester.”

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