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Building critical strengths with remote internships

For schools with real estate property management programs, internships, job shadowing, and property tours play an important role, giving students real-life insights that bring relevance to the academic curriculum. These opportunities for experiential learning provide a way for students to learn while doing – for example, to experience how to quickly turn around an apartment when one resident leaves and another moves in, to understand the importance of responding promptly to tenant work order requests, and to get first-hand exposure to property operating budgets.

What happens when an intern can’t be on site, when property tours are forbidden, when the ability to shadow property managers disappears? Can internships and comparable in-the-field learning experiences be replicated in a virtual world or supplemented with other activities? After all, this was the reality for most students in 2020 and is still continuing into 2021.

Writing competitions supplement in-person engagement

With the arrival of COVID-19, and many colleges and universities closed their campuses and pivoted to virtual class offerings, employers that typically hired summer interns or organized on-site property tours for students likewise curtailed or eliminated these activities. Among the students facing this situation were those enrolled in property management programs at Virginia Tech and the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), both of which immediately began searching for meaningful and creative alternatives to replace in-person experiences in the midst of a pandemic.

One such alternative was a research and writing competition. Virginia Tech offered students the opportunity to take part in this competition as a way to earn credits toward an internship, and UAA offered the competition as a way to create engagement for its Weidner Property Management and Real Estate Program (WPM+RE) students during the uncertain COVID times. In both cases, the winners not only benefited from the experience, but also gained recognition and received cash prizes from their respective schools. IREM stepped in by offering to publish the winning entries.

At UAA, the winning entry was written by Lindsay Murray, a student in the WPM+RE program. The topic of her paper was “Tying Emotional Intelligence to the Customer Experience in Real Estate Management,” and she explored the extent to which the level of service provided by real estate managers is influenced by the degree of emotional intelligence (EQ) they possess.

In her conclusion she states that, “It is clear that higher EQ leads to stronger relationships, more effective communication, and ultimately a more positive customer experience.” She went on to say that “While working to improve EQ may be challenging, the benefits are certainly worth the costs. Real estate managers are service providers, continually engaged in relationships with customers, owners, vendors, employees, and a number of other stakeholders. Emotional intelligence is not only the “ultimate leadership competency,” it is the ultimate relationship competency. Investing the time to evaluate your current EQ and taking steps to grow this competency will pay dividends throughout your career.“

Across the country in Blacksburg, Virginia, Angelee Hayes, a student in the Virginia Tech Residential Property Management Program, submitted the school’s winning entry when she tackled this topic: “Bridging the Gap: Technology and Property Management.” Her particular focus was on how technology can grow exposure for properties, the critical importance of knowing the market, and the use of social media to connect renters and buyers with properties.

Supported by research, she concludes that “better understanding in the demographics of the market with a focus on marketing centered on technology and social media can lead to guaranteed satisfaction between buyers and sellers of properties. We are currently living in the digital age, so it is best for businesses to adapt to this by connecting with the potential buyers in new ways. Social media has proved to be a successful tool for many businesses, and it would not be any different for the property management and residential construction industries. Once these companies can see the large number of benefits that accompany the utilization of technology and social media for the benefit of potential residents, then this would most likely lead to an increase in NOI for them. It will be interesting to see how much the residential market will change with the focus shifting to new innovative ways to control business through social media.”

Developing virtual and hybrid internships

These pandemic-driven writing competitions enabled students who participated to embark on learning experiences of a different, but equally relevant, kind. After all, aren’t research and writing important skills for property managers? This raises the question of whether supplementary learning activities like this, and other modifications to traditional in-person work experiences will have a place in academic programs, even after the pandemic fades into the background.

Consider virtual internships. “While it may sound like something out of the Jetsons, virtual internships are a legitimate way to get resume experience. More and more companies are utilizing them because employers find them beneficial in a variety of ways -from a larger applicant pool, to saving time, space and money on utilizing workers only when necessary. In short, the virtual internship is growing and thriving, especially because of improving technology and the growth of social media, which is exactly why you shouldn’t count these opportunities out of your internship search.” Here's the shocker: This article appeared on FastWeb on April 18, 2018 - two years before COVID-19 had entered the nation’s lexicon – evidence that virtual internships have been around a while in some industries, and are not strictly a product of the pandemic.

The article cites advantages of virtual internships: the ability to intern for any company regardless of location, possibly having more flexible hours, and even the chance to attend school and earn internship credit at the same time. In fairness, it also cites arguments against virtual internships; not surprisingly, these include lack of structure and support, no office environment, and less job training and guidance. These are limitations that can be addressed and avoided through a well-designed program of effective virtual onboarding, frequent online support, use of video conference and online work tools, intentional mentorship, and ongoing education about the business of property management, as well as the operations of the specific company.

The acceptance of virtual internships is supported by a survey of employers conducted last month by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). The survey showed that for 2021, 43% of the companies surveyed were planning for hybrid internships, and 38% were planning for their internships to be exclusively virtual. Only 13% planned for fully in-person internships, while seven percent remained undecided.

Virtual and hybrid internship models may motivate real estate management companies that had not offered internships in the past to reconsider their decisions – and prod colleges and universities to expand the ways they inculcate experienced-based learning into their academic programs. As remote work becomes more commonplace – destined to become a post-COVID reality – remote or hybrid internships and independent practice-based activities may become every bit as valuable in preparing students for the workplace as more traditional internships. In the end, the goal is to attract students to a career in real estate management, prepare them to hit the ground running, and position them for success.

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