The definition of “being in the office” or “being on the clock” is changing. Most organizations—government or private—have a multi-generational workforce that may or may not be in the same location. Our team alone has four generations with varying comfort levels in using different technologies. Through our virtual internship program, we have strengthened our ability to work seamlessly regardless of physical location.
Every year college students come to Washington, D.C. to spend their summer break gaining valuable work experience and making solid connections. Many students return to school having made a good impression on potential employers. Through its new virtual internship program, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has successfully extended this summertime experience, giving new meaning to making connections and creating a model for others to follow.
Since 2001, our Dairy Programs have offered virtual internships. Virtual internships are like regular internships, but the students work from a remote location. Most of these interns came to Washington, D.C., for a summer internship and returned to school to finish their degrees. During the school year, the student interns stayed connected to AMS by working with the agency on a part-time and intermittent basis. The Virtual Internship Program (VIP) goes above and beyond, since it also works as a Leadership Program.
It’s a win-win situation for our agency because we get to attract bright, young students and then retain their knowledge. As leaders and innovators they are typically very busy – not only with their academics, but also with extracurricular activities. Sometimes this limits their ability to commute to and from internship programs that are outside their community, so a virtual opportunity is a perfect fit.
Communication has been both a challenge and a success for this program. We often use Microsoft Live Meeting, Office Communicator and similar programs, relying on technology and new communication tools to stay connected. Our projects encourage our interns to focus on collaboration and creativity, leading to innovative ideas, and injecting new approaches into our government processes.
The use of different technologies makes our students well-suited to evaluate the ways that the agency communicates with the general public. Some of their projects include testing new software, like the new Public Comment Analysis Tool, and reviewing our website to make sure it’s accessible for people with disabilities. They have also proposed innovative ways to communicate with un-served and underserved farmers.
In an age where government agencies are using webinars and similar technologies to communicate with the public and increase transparency, our experience with the internship program has made our agency a leader. We are developing our Virtual Internship “Leadership” guidelines to present to the department as an option for all USDA interns, and our program has become an example for other agencies.
In the summer of 2007, the USDA and the Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) hired a virtual intern by following our model. Working from home, the intern was responsible for maintaining the HSI website after his traditional summer internship ended.
We encourage other agencies and offices all over the country to develop similar programs to improve public communication and general access. We are excited for the upcoming internship season. If you are interested in becoming one of our virtual interns or want to learn about how you can start your own program, visit our internship site for more information.