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Virtual is the New Reality

Mary Burich | June 23, 2020


COVID-19 halted school, sports and social lives of young people across the U.S. One thing it couldn’t stop: the Hormel Foods internship program.

Cecilia Nancarrow, a Kansas State University sales and data analytics major, had been looking forward to spending the summer before her senior year in Dallas as an intern with Hormel Foods, where she would learn the ins and outs of food service sales. But with COVID-19 putting the kibosh on even the most ordinary of activities, her dream gig looked like it wasn’t going to happen. “I didn’t even consider that my internship would not be canceled,” Nancarrow says. “Restaurants, hotels, hospitals — those would be my customers so as soon as all of those shut down I was thinking, “If all these places are going to closed for the remainder of the summer I have no idea how I’ll be able to do my job”.

But thanks to some innovative thinking and quick work by Hormel Foods, 60 college students found a silver lining when the company devised a way to make good on its commitment to offer them high-powered business training — by creating its first-ever virtual internship program for those not able to be on-site at Hormel Foods offices.

Amy Sheehan, Hormel Foods director of talent acquisition, rolled up her sleeves and got to work with a team of internal professionals to figure out if and how she could transform the internship program into a virtual experience. And yet, as they continued to hear stories of organizations rescinding internship offers, team members wondered if their objective was feasible. Sheehan and her colleagues persisted. The result was a program that had interns assigned to the Corporate Office in Austin, Minn., and to the sales organization, working full time from their homes, using laptops delivered to them courtesy of Hormel Foods. Chat and videoconferencing applications were preloaded on the computers, allowing the summer workers to connect easily with each other and with members of their teams.

And that was just the beginning. Intern orientation day, a perennial favorite, took place as scheduled. As usual, it served as a forum for students to meet classmates, hear from former interns, learn about Hormel Foods policies and procedures, and delve into the company’s ethos and philosophy. Jim Snee, the affable Hormel Foods chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer, even made an appearance to field a wide range of questions from the group.

A Hormel Foods intern working remotely

Rather than suspend its internship program, Hormel Foods devised a virtual experience that worked for everyone.

Once officially on board, interns were immersed in a curriculum of professional development opportunities and job-specific training. For example, while finance interns were getting up to speed on profit-and-loss statements, those focused on sales were using videoconferencing platforms to familiarize themselves with products and their features, and taking part in cooking demonstrations to understand how Hormel Foods customers and consumers might react to the company’s offerings. Networking events and lunch-and-learn sessions were being held weekly for the entire intern class.

Behind the scenes, Hormel Foods managers were making use of tailor-made tools to supervise their interns virtually. At the same time, they were providing a structure in which interns had exposure to segment leaders and business initiatives, and received opportunities to make lasting connections.

The program did more than delight interns. Reporters at media outlets such as NPR and Business Insider picked up on rumblings that Hormel Foods would be moving forward with its internship program. Though it was understandably difficult to get media attention for anything unrelated to the hard facts of the coronavirus, a story about a Fortune 500 company – and an essential one at that – finding time to refashion its internship program was a delightful sidebar.

On average
of interns signed up to work for Hormel Foods after graduation

By all accounts, the internship endeavor was a success, which has given Sheehan cause to celebrate. She knows the program, ranked fourth throughout the United States by Vault in the retail and consumer products category, is important to emerging professionals and to her company alike. Indeed, it’s not unheard of for Hormel Foods to receive 3,000 applications for the roughly 60 spots available each summer, yielding a pool of handpicked exceptional talent that serves as a major recruitment pipeline for Sheehan and her team. On average, 70 percent of interns go back to school having signed up to work for Hormel Foods after graduation. Years later, you can find many of them looking back on long and successful careers with the company.

One of the reasons for these recruitment and retention statistics is the company’s strong culture. Though she’s never set foot in a Hormel Foods building, Kenyatta Hutchinson, a University of Georgia student and one of 2020ʼs sales interns, developed a feeling early on for the kind of values at play within the 129-year-old company.

“I applaud Hormel Foods for being transparent throughout this whole process,” she says, recalling the many times established team members reached out with words of support and encouragement to make her feel valued. “My recruiter went the extra mile and checked in on my mental health and how I was handling all of the changes [brought about by the pandemic].”

Even for members of a generation raised on sophisticated technology, learning and performing a high-stakes job remotely was largely uncharted territory. Bryan Zhang, an accounting and finance intern from Indiana University, knew he was missing out on so-called water-cooler conversations and cafeteria catch-ups, but he and his fellow interns have been bolstered by the belief that they stand on the precipice of something big, a new way of doing things, normal 2.0. According to Monx Cullen, a sales intern from the University of Tennessee, the interns’ experience of using digital tools to get their jobs done and connect with constituents without the need to meet in person will be a major advantage down the road.

“As companies come out of COVID-19, the question will no longer be, ‘Is there a reason to do this online?’” Cullen says. “The question will be, ‘Is there a reason to do this in person?’