Defense Companies Scramble to Make Virtual Internships Work

Northrop Grumman interns pose in front of a company sign.

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Northrop Grumman interns pose in front of a company sign.

Despite the economic crisis, the industry has too much to do, and not enough people to do it.

While many U.S. firms are cancelling internships this pandemic-stricken summer, large aerospace and defense companies are scrambling to make sure their temporary hires can still show up, if only virtually.

The industry has long relied on internships to help build its hyperspecialized workforce. Most interns who successfully complete their short stint at a company are offered a full-time job. And this year — even as one in five Americans goes unemployed — defense companies are hunting for qualified workers to fill thousands of job openings and fulfill Pentagon orders for a new generation of missiles, spacecraft and warplanes.

“Our interns are absolutely the fuel for an engineering organization, long-term,” Lisa Finneran, General Dynamics Mission Systems vice president of engineering, said. “If we don’t invest in our college grads, I get very concerned, obviously about our future potential as a company.”

Throughout the defense sector, many engineering interns find themselves working on high-profile military projects, writing software or taking part in experiments.

“The work that we carve out for our interns is purposeful; it’s project-related,” said Peter Brooks, Northrop Grumman’s vice president of talent acquisition. “Some of our interns, especially those returning, have gotten their clearance as part of the process and so they’re able to work on some of the really more interesting things that we do.”

Northrop Grumman has about 3,000 interns joining its ranks this summer. Lockheed Martin has 2,600; Boeing, 1,450; L3Harris Technologies, 750; and General Dynamics Mission Systems, a business unit of General Dynamics, about 230. 

Most of these interns, especially the engineering ones, will eventually become full-time employees. At General Dynamics Mission Systems, for example, about 60 percent of graduating interns become full-time employees. The company has more than 400 openings for engineering positions.

At Northrop, about 75 percent of its interns become full-time employees. The company is expecting to hire 10,000 employees this year.

In March as coronavirus spread throughout the United States, internship coordinators had to quickly come up with new ways to not only give interns meaningful work, but replicate day-to-day personal and social interaction, considered valuable parts of internships.

“From the time that we first recognized the COVID virus as a potential challenge, to the time where we had completely overhauled our program was about 11 days,” Brooks said.

Some companies shipped laptops, telephone headsets, computer monitors and other equipment to interns’ homes. Traditionally large, in-person events are now all virtual.

“In an industry that sometimes isn’t recognized for agility, I’m proud of the innovative way that we’ve approached that on everything from the mechanics around their acquiring IDs and badges to their new employee orientation,” Brooks said.

Lockheed Martin — which has 2,600 interns this year, about half of which are working virtually — is connecting them with Slack and Zoom, software used extensively in the commercial sector.

“We are creating different kinds of space and opportunities for them to connect in a different way than what historically our interns have had the opportunity to,” Jean Wallace, Lockheed Martin vice president of workforce solutions, said. “We’re looking at it as really creating a virtual network of talent internally with the organization and building relationships that will last through their entire career we hope.” 

For Chad Holden, a software engineering manager at Lockheed Martin Missile and Fire Control whose team writes Apache helicopter software, his four interns have been productive while working from home.

“I’ve learned that people can get a lot more done from home than they probably thought they could,” Holden said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how people have managed to maintain pretty much the same efficiency working from home and only going into the office when necessary.”

It’s not just the summer crop of interns that are having their work schedules rejiggered. Interns who had already been working during the spring semester found themselves writing code in the office one day and writing code from home the next as large parts of the American workforce began working remotely in March as coronavirus spread.

“They’ve gone from always having to be in the office to now always working from home,” Holden said. “I would say that’s been the biggest adjustment for them.”

Some interns who work on classified projects or manufacturing lines must still show up to company facilities since that type of work cannot be done remotely.

“If we can do work at home, we will do work at home,” Finneran said.

In addition to a mentor, companies like General Dynamics Mission Systems are assigning each intern a “buddy” — essentially a young employee who was an intern themself.

“We’re trying to make it as traditional of an internship experience as we possibly can with everything going on,” said Sierra Preble, a General Dynamics Mission System engineer who works on a Coast Guard command-and-control program.

Preble, who has been a full-time employee for just over a year, started interning with the company during her junior year of college. She’s now a buddy to an intern who started work week and a virtual intern ambassador for the company.

With its interns unable to get up close and personal with its airplanes, Boeing, has organized computer-based events, like virtual airplane tours, a company spokesman said.

Northrop has scheduled regular webcasts with its executives and virtual ways of keeping in touch with its remote interns.

“The critical component is that we try to make sure that every interaction that we have with the interns — from the time we interview them to the time they even return to college or transition into full time employment with us — … is a defining moment,” Brooks said. 

With uncertainty looming over the fall semester for many colleges, companies are changing the way they recruit on campus, needing to forgo the face-to-face meetings that have always been the norm.

“Working from home and making the shift to go completely virtual in our recruitment processes, that’s been a big cultural shift for us,” Wallace said. “But we’ve transitioned and pivoted.”

Since companies often begin searching for summer interns in the fall semester, recruiters are looking for ways to find talent if coronavirus keeps colleges closed.

“We might not be able to have boots on the ground, but we can still maintain that presence, we can still host the sessions, albeit remote,” said Lauren Faulkner, General Dynamics Mission Systems intern recruiter. “We have the experience to do that.”

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