Feature

The virtual future of internships

Part of our series on the future of Main Street

Internships have long been favored by the business world for their use in attracting, training, and evaluating potential employees (not to mention their function as an inexpensive source of labor). And internships have certainly not lost any of their importance in the age of the internet. If anything, the internet has enabled internships to become virtual.

Small, web-based companies — especially marketing and communications firms — were early adopters of the virtual internship, in which interns work remotely via phone and the web, said Lauren Berger, the CEO of InternQueen.com, which lists internship opportunities of both the virtual and traditional varieties. Though Fortune 500 companies have largely shied away from joining the trend, virtual internship listings have increased threefold over the past few years, she said. Virtual interns don't take up office space and can work from anywhere, which allows businesses to consider hires from all corners of the country and beyond.

"Offering virtual internships opens your search up to a much larger pool of applicants and allows you to be really selective," Berger said.

Berger stresses the importance of maintaining open lines of communication in order for virtual internships to succeed, both for employers and employees. Because interns miss out on the learning and camaraderie that naturally come from being in a physical office, it's critical that the company communicates with and coaches up interns so the experience remains valuable for them, even from afar.

InternQueen.com has two to four virtual interns at any given time, and Berger says she uses conference calls and instant messaging to keep in touch with all of her employees living and working across the country. She recommends assigning a manager to oversee project assignments and progress tracking, and also to serve as an immediate point of contact for interns who are looking for a new assignment or who have a question.

"Even if they're remote, if you're hiring virtual interns, they deserve to be a priority for your company and need to be given proper attention," Berger said. "With technology and a well-structured work plan for our interns, they function extremely efficiently as part of our team."

At Assay Depot, an Amazon-like platform that allows pharmaceutical and biotech companies to outsource experiments, about half of the company's 25-person workforce are part-time virtual interns. They work as a "concierge service" to Assay Depot's clients, helping to identify suppliers, serving as a support system, and ensuring orders are filled accurately and on time, said Dan Kagan, the company's vice president for innovation.

Kagan, who initiated the company's virtual internship program a year ago, has experimented with different formats for the program, but has settled on one to two months of unpaid training, followed by a paid, evaluative period of work.

Assay Depot's virtual interns, typically undergraduate or graduate students studying the hard sciences, are charged with a higher level of responsibility than found in many internships, Kagan said. While they're measured with metrics that make slacking off impossible to hide, they're given autonomy to work out solutions to problems affecting their clients, and they'll often find themselves on the phone with C-level executives. If they measure up to what Kagan and Assay Depot are looking for, they're offered full-time jobs and compensation of stock options upon graduation. So far, four interns who passed through the evaluative period have been hired as full-time employees.

As Assay Depot is proving that virtual internships aren't just for PR companies looking for someone to run their social media, Professor David Williamson Shaffer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is preparing to launch the next generation of virtual internship. Shaffer, the director of the Games and Professional Simulations research group in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, is working on creating simulated internships that will allow companies to train would-be interns in the exact skills they're looking for before they ever start a real internship, and to track the skill acquisition of interns as they progress through the program.

The product of nearly two decades of research into how people learn complex thinking skills, Shaffer's research group has built model virtual internships for the fields of urban planning, mechanical engineering, and biomedical research design, and has plans to create additional simulated internships for architecture, journalism, and law.

Still, it may be several years before their simulated internships are in wide use, as the group develops products for more industries and gets its technical support up to capacity. Once that happens, companies will have the option to buy an off-the-shelf simulated internship program or pay more to customize their training to emphasize skills or traits unique to their line of work.

A big reason why the internship has lasted through recent technological innovations that have disrupted so many other formerly sacred business traditions is that it still serves the role of offering a trial period for an employer to determine whether an employee is a good fit for the job. With the cost of a bad hiring decision estimated somewhere between financially damaging and devastating, businesses of all types and sizes may want to consider starting a virtual internship program, even if at first glance, the cost and trouble don't seem worth it.

"Even if it costs a couple of thousand dollars to get better information on your intern's aptitude, the data says that's a very affordable alternative to making a bad hire," Shaffer said. "More and more, virtual internships look like a smart business decision."

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