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Remote Possibilities

By Elizabeth Sears

 

Internships have always been known to take different shapes and forms, from a student teacher eagerly helping to prepare classroom activities to the stereotypical unpaid intern making copies and bringing coffee to co-workers while carefully shadowing how the different jobs at their company work.

Now, a new type of internship has been added to the mix: a student sitting at home in front of their laptop. For many students, this has become the new normal.

With the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the leaders of internship programs at universities in Western Mass. feared that students would not be able to have as many internship opportunities. George Layng, an internship coordinator at Westfield State University, recalled feelings of uncertainty when the fall 2020 semester approached.

“School was back in session, but it was all virtual … would internship sites be as receptive to having interns as they were in the past? Usually, we have more places that are willing to have interns than we have interns for, but our fear was that we’d be in the reverse, that we’d have more interns than we have places for,” Layng said.

“I think, actually, students are better able to manage that shift now because their classes are online and they are working more independently.”

However, despite the copious amounts of instability in many areas of academic life brought on by the pandemic, internship programs at colleges in the Western Mass. region have been running strongly with abundant student success. Layng said the number of students participating in his internship program has remained steady over the course of the pandemic, even when compared to pre-pandemic years.

“I think, actually, students are better able to manage that shift now because their classes are online and they are working more independently,” he told BusinessWest. “One of the silver linings is that they are more able and more prepared to work somewhat independently, somewhat virtually, and it not being a big issue.”

A large part of this success was credited to the ability of students, professors, and employers to remain adaptable during the continuously changing protocols throughout the pandemic. The willingness of employers to take on interns remotely and overcome that boundary, along with the determination of students to work through uncertain conditions, has proven to be a winning combination for successfully running internship programs during the pandemic.

 

New Normal

This is not to say internship programs have been running without their fair share of challenges.

Alan Bloomgarden, director of Experiential Learning at Elms College, spoke of how, even though his students have shown remarkable success at obtaining placements at various internship sites, constantly evolving safety concerns impacted some student internships and experiential-learning experiences.

Alan Bloomgarden

Alan Bloomgarden says students have done well with internship placements during the pandemic, but safety concerns have impacted some experiences.

“The employers themselves are, I think, not necessarily prioritizing construction of internships, where their employees are really required to do an additional amount of work to supervise students,” he said. “That is difficult under normal circumstances, and it may be a bridge too far for some employers under the current pressures of staffing and adapting to changing health and safety conditions.”

Bloomgarden noted that students in the social sciences and humanities have been encountering a greater degree of difficulty in internship placements because of changing circumstances. Even though the internship program at large is functioning well, some students have still found themselves in a place where the pandemic caused certain internships to fall short, when they might have been successful in a normal year.

Layng echoed this sentiment, remembering a particular instance with a student seeking an internship that highlights the recent limitations of certain internship placements caused by the pandemic.

“I had a student who I was trying to place at Baystate [Health] in the public relations department, and he had experience in healthcare public relations and marketing,” Layng noted. “He would have been an excellent candidate to take the next step … but the person at Baystate said they were just so busy, there’s so many cases, they just can’t really work with interns in the way that would really help them. That’s one clear way the pandemic lessened the opportunities for interns.”

On the other hand, one perhaps unexpected benefit of the recent shift to online internships has been the newfound ability for students to be placed at sites whose far-away locations would have typically eliminated them from being realistic options. The normalization of remote work has opened up opportunities for students in Western Mass. to intern at businesses in larger cities like Boston and New York without having to spend an entire semester away from their university.

“I have seen students develop some creative adaptations to the circumstances that we’re all facing,” Bloomgarden said. “Just as we’re seeing a changing workplace as a society, we’re seeing changes in the face of what internships look like.”

He spoke of how Elms College’s teacher-licensure students had been conducting their experiential learning in a hybrid format but are now being placed at schools in-person. The students in the college’s social-work program have also found themselves returning to in-person internship sites, Bloomgarden said.

“Just as we’re seeing a changing workplace as a society, we’re seeing changes in the face of what internships look like.”

While most students have been gradually returning to in-person internships, some students have been doing internships in this fashion throughout the course of the pandemic. This has been especially true for students who are looking to enter the medical field.

Bloomgarden described the experiences of students in the nursing program at the Elms, and how they have been continuing with clinical placements even with the pandemic.

“They are, in many ways, frontline workers,” he said. “Our students are conducting experiential learning in the same way that the permanent, full-time employees of the organizations hosting them are asking of their employees.”

Internship programs in Western Mass. colleges and universities have found that both students and employers now expect a conversation about the possibility of a virtually formatted internship. The high level of adaptability shown by employers has positively impacted students by allowing them internship opportunities even during very uncertain times.

“Employers are seeing the value of interns and the value of internships as an education practice,” Bloomgarden said. “Internships help with career readiness… they deepen one’s understanding of one’s discipline, having a chance to apply the methods, whatever the field is.”

 

Community Impact

Whether in-person, hybrid, or fully remote, leaders of internship programs still assert that internships in any format are substantially beneficial to students — and for a variety of reasons. Both Layng and Bloomgarden enthusiastically emphasized the importance of internships and the value they provide for a student’s future career.

“It’s a really good stepping stone to a career,” Layng said. “They are going to prepare you for what it’s like, getting ready for the professional world.”

He added that student feedback has been mostly satisfactory, with students expressing that they feel like they are still getting a quality internship even if a fair percentage of them are partially or completely remote.

“Internships and experiential learning can enable active citizenship and the advancement of social action.”

Bloomgarden spoke of the numerous ways that internships are beneficial not only to the students themselves, but also to the businesses they work at and the communities they are a part of.

“Internships and experiential learning can enable active citizenship and the advancement of social action,” he said. “Our job is to encourage and support the development of those pathways to making positive impact on the world. We want to encourage them in becoming meaningful contributors to their communities.”

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Making Change

As essential businesses that couldn’t shut down operations during the pandemic, banks and credit unions met some daunting challenges over the past year — both logistical and in meeting the needs of customers, many of whom were navigating difficult financial times. While things are starting getting back to normal now, the definition of ‘normal’ has shifted — and area banking leaders say they’ve learned some lessons they will certainly bring into the future.

Aleda De Maria says PeoplesBank

Aleda De Maria says PeoplesBank’s call-center activity tripled over the past 14 months.

By Mark Morris

Winston Churchill gets credit for first remarking, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”

For bankers in Western Mass., the COVID-19 crisis was in many ways a chance to learn what works best for their customers and their workers.

While branch offices for most banks have reopened, they were ordered closed to the general public at the beginning of the pandemic, opening to customers only by appointment. As a result, many customers relied on online banking to handle routine transactions.

For those who needed to open an account, it was no longer necessary to visit a branch, as the entire process can be done online, said Aleda De Maria, senior vice president, Retail and Operations for PeoplesBank, who noted that new account applications doubled in the past year, and the use of mobile deposits is up nearly 40%.

“Customers who may have been reluctant in the past to try our online self-service channels are now using them,” she added. “We’ve also seen occasional users of these tools become more aggressive users.”

Because customers had plenty of questions amid the uncertainty of the past 14 months, De Maria reported a significant increase in activity on the bank’s phone lines. “Our call center tripled the volume of activity we would normally see. Now we’re back to what I would call a busy, but more normal level.”

As cars lined up at drive-up windows during business hours, many banks increased their use of video tellers to extend the hours tellers can be available. A video teller looks and functions like a standard ATM, but the customer can also reach a live professional when they have a more complex transaction.

“Customers who may have been reluctant in the past to try our online self-service channels are now using them. We’ve also seen occasional users of these tools become more aggressive users.”

“It’s as if you are standing in front of a teller,” said John Howland, president and CEO of Greenfield Savings Bank. “We had six of these in place before COVID, and they really worked well for us during that time when we could not allow people to come into the branches.” The bank has since added six more of its Teller Connect video tellers.

De Maria said video tellers made it possible to expand beyond normal business hours to even include Sundays.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch says credit-union CEOs have been discussing the future of hybrid work arrangements, since employees will expect that flexibility.

“We can now offer banking services seven days a week without us having to keep our banking centers open seven days a week,” she noted, adding that the pandemic made one point crystal clear: customers want options, now more than ever. “Customers want the flexibility to either interact with someone or not to interact.”

For this issue’s focus on banking and finance, BusinessWest spoke with several executives from local banks and credit unions about how they have weathered the past year, what lies ahead, and what they — and their customers — have learned.

 

From a Distance

In addition to new ways of serving customers, banks were challenged to become more flexible with their employees, many of whom were forced to work from home.

Glenn Welch, president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union, recalled that, at the height of the pandemic, 30 employees worked exclusively from home while another 30 split their time between home and the office. Now, 47 employees are taking a hybrid approach of splitting their work time between the office and home.

“Going forward, employees are going to expect to have an option for some kind of hybrid between working at home and the office,” Welch said, adding that an online forum of credit-union CEOs recently discussed how a hybrid approach might work. “The consensus is to bring people back to the office as much as possible while still allowing them the flexibility to work from home probably one or two days a week.”

“The consensus is to bring people back to the office as much as possible while still allowing them the flexibility to work from home probably one or two days a week.”

John Bissell, president and CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union, said 176 of his employees work from home right now, and he has no immediate plans to require a mass return to the office.

“In fact, we are so confident in the success of the work-from-home model that we are consolidating one of our branches with a nearby operations center,” Bissell said. While Greylock has no plans to permanently close branches, it is looking into shared-space arrangements to increase efficiency and save on future real-estate investments.

All the bankers agreed that, when possible, they prefer personal interactions with their employees and customers. When that’s not possible, they are grateful for advances in technology that have made it easier to work from home. Sometimes it results in seeing certain jobs in a different light.

John Howland

John Howland says some positions, such as those in loan processing, are more suited for a remote setup than others.

“I never thought I’d say this, but there are some situations where the business and the task is better suited to work remotely,” Howland said, citing certain loan-processing positions as one example. “Because all the documents are electronic, it’s easy to measure a person’s productivity without looking over their shoulder.”

Bissell admits this past year has helped him understand how the pandemic affects employees in different ways.

“Those with school-aged children or who are caregivers have different needs than those who may be at risk themselves or have a partner who works as a first responder,” he said. “We must pay close attention to employee needs and build in opportunities to meet them where they are.”

Whether employees worked in the office or from home, they all stayed busy with mortgage applications for people buying new homes and for those looking to refinance at historically low interest rates.

“Our mortgage business was up nearly 65% last year,” Welch said. “As fewer houses are available for sale, we’re making up some of that slack in the refinancing area.”

He predicts slower growth could loom on the horizon, however. “There are only so many people who can refinance, and when you have less housing inventory to sell, it suggests a slowdown in the mortgage business may be coming.”

While the mortgage market is still active, Bissell pointed out there is a greater demand than housing supply, so Greylock is trying to help increase the supply. “We are partnering with local leaders to look at ways to stimulate development of more housing across the pricing spectrum,” he said, with the goal of a healthy housing market that is accessible to all members of the community.

On the flip side of new mortgages, job losses during the pandemic made staying current on mortgage payments a burden for many.

“We anticipated that people would have trouble when COVID hit,” Howland said, “so we allowed people to defer their mortgage payments without having to substantiate they had a need.”

 

By All Accounts

The pandemic — and the economic shutdown it ushered in — challenged business-banking clients as well, and for the first round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, Greenfield Savings Bank created a task force of 43 employees to help local businesses process their loan applications. Employees often made calls on the weekend to clarify any point that might slow down the process. Several applicants received calls from Howland himself.

“It was amazing that no one complained for calling them at 8 p.m. on a Saturday,” he said. “They were all just happy we were working on their behalf.”

In the first round of PPP, Greenfield Savings processed 720 loans totaling around $60 million, and followed up with nearly the same amount in the second round. Meanwhile, the business-banking team at Greylock secured $30 million in PPP loans, which Bissell said helped save nearly 4,000 jobs in the Pittsfield area.

As everyone tries to figure out what lies ahead, bankers remain optimistic. Like every institution, Freedom Credit Union saw a surge in deposits after $1,400 pandemic-relief checks began landing in accounts, Welch noted. “People have only spent about 25% of their government checks, so there’s lot of pent-up demand out there.”

While banks had been increasing their use of technology anyway, industry data suggests COVID accelerated that shift by at least five years. Based on that trend, Welch sees bankers moving toward more of a consulting role.

“I think, eventually, people will visit a bank or credit-union branch when they need financial advice such as buying a home or a car,” he said. “Increasingly, they will handle their routine transactions online.”

Video teller machines are another example of the increased use of technology for everyday transactions.

“I think the pandemic made customers more willing to try new technology that we hadn’t offered before,” De Maria said. “We’ve seen some real success in their adoption of tools like our video banker.”

Still, while bankers are pleased with how well customers have adjusted to making technology part of their banking routine, they all look forward to the time when in-person banking becomes normal once again.

“When you get down to the basics, we provide relationship-based financial services,” Bissell said. “It’s really about personal relationships.”

In addition to engaging customers again, Howland said the camaraderie and collegiality of the staff being together is also essential.

“I’m a big believer in the small talk around the water bubbler,” he said, adding that the pandemic robbed people of those everyday social interactions that were taken for granted in the past.

“We are looking forward to a routine where we see our customers on a regular basis and we can have that friendly conversation once again,” he went on. “Everyone in our company is looking forward to that happening.”

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