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The growing footprint of virtual internships

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The shift to online working and learning during the pandemic has proven to be an accelerator for adoption of virtual internships as well

Not long ago, student demand for physical, in-person work placements located in-country or overseas far exceeded that for virtual internships undertaken remotely from home. But the pandemic has ushered in a surge of interest for remote and hybrid (i.e., a blend of in-person and remote) internships, in no small part because so much education and work has moved online.

Many employers are now (1) looking for evidence that a job candidate can be productive
working remotely and (2) seeking convenient recruitment funnels. Students who excel in their virtual internships are just the sort of workers these employers are looking for.

It hasn’t taken long for students to reconsider the value of internships in which at least some of their work experience happens remotely and through meetings with colleagues and employers on platforms including Skype, Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Zoom. A College Pulse survey conducted in spring 2021 of 1,500 college students found that more students wanted a hybrid internship (42%) than wanted a completely in-person experience (38%). Only 20% wanted their internship to be fully remote.

Distinct benefits

Part of the appeal of virtual internships for some students is affordability. By working from home, they can avoid the costs of international or domestic travel, transportation, and accommodation that are often significant in traditional internships.

Another huge advantage is that virtual internships aren’t tied to a particular location or pool of employers. Because of this, a student studying environmental science in the UK, say, could participate in a virtual internship with a pioneering eco-efficiency start-up in Costa Rica. Borderless virtual internships also offer a major benefit for students studying abroad who intend to return home after graduation. Chinese students are especially likely to return home (up to 80% do) and are naturally interested in linking their foreign degrees to job opportunities in preferred Chinese cities – it’s key to a favourable return on investment. It’s not difficult to imagine a Chinese prospect deciding to apply to a particular foreign university upon discovering that the university can connect them with an internship with a top company located in China.

Without doubt, virtual internships stand to strengthen an institution’s attractiveness to another international student segment: those planning to study online with a foreign institution from their home country. Being able to offer these students access to a global network of employers and peers through virtual internships represents a compelling competitive advantage.

Best in class

Some universities have moved quickly to develop well-designed virtual internships. Last fall, for example, Oberlin College, in Ohio, designed a remote micro-internship programme that incorporated soft-skills development and a career readiness component. Dana Hamdan, associate dean and executive director of Oberlin’s Career Development Center, wrote about the college’s Junior Practicum in an article for Inside Higher Ed:

“We wove into the programme a series of complex problems – like climate change, refugee protection, politics and the media, gentrification, and political polarisation – that we knew would resonate with students …. We folded in sessions to help students with resumés, grant writing, branding, negotiation and many other skills. We organised group workshops on topics such as navigating the workplace as a person of color, allyship, inclusion and more. And then we sent them off to remote micro-internships to practise what they had learned.”

The role of career services

Oberlin’s Junior Practicum is indicative of an institution that is wisely investing in career services. Research shows that too few institutions prioritise this area. For example, a Strada Student Viewpoint survey fielded by College Pulse last September of 2,000 students found that only 35% said their college was “excellent or very good at connecting education to meaningful careers.” Crucially, of those who said they had received excellent support, 83% said their education “would be worth the cost,” while just 17% who said they had received poor support believed that their investment in college was worth it.

The long and short of it is that strong career services can greatly influence student satisfaction, and satisfaction leads to the positive peer-to-peer word of mouth that is so important for recruitment results.

Third-party options

College and university staff have their hands full, to say the least, because of the pandemic. With resources stretched, some universities are turning to third-party companies to provide their students with remote opportunities.

One such company is Virtual Internships, an online platform that provides students with international work experience programmes across 18 career fields. The start-up, whose co-founders are Daniel Nivern and Ed Holroyd Pearce, received US$2.5 million in investor funding this summer and is quickly gaining traction. In 2019, the company arranged internships for 100 students. In 2020, the number was 1,700, and this year, 6,000 students are expected to secure placements through Virtual Internships. More than 4,000 host companies across 70 countries are on the platform, and more than 100 universities and educational institutions worldwide are clients.

The way the model works is that students can pay Virtual Internships for their experience or a school can pay for students to have a guaranteed internship with one of the companies on the platform as well as an optional academic credit. The Virtual Internships platform manages the applications, screening, approval, and acceptance process from end to end. Programme duration is 4, 8, or 12 weeks, and students work 20 to 30 hours a week.

Mr Nivern explains that the platform is made for the quickly changing needs of students and employers:

“Digitalisation has completely accelerated the way we work with people across the
globe and internships should mirror this pattern. With a focus on accessibility,
diversity and clear learning outcomes, we’ve redesigned the internship experience for a new, virtual and borderless world.”

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