For decades, companies have given young people the opportunity to explore new career paths through internships. During an internship, a young person would spend a few months in a certain job and gain experience working hands-on within an organization. This complements the college curriculum well, where you learn skills in academia, then apply those in the workforce.
Internships have afforded employers a number of benefits. Firstly, internships acted as a new talent funnel for employers. If they were looking for new entry-level employees, hiring interns would be a great way to fill those positions. In an internship, the employer can see prospective candidates work in a professional environment and determine whether or not they would be a good fit; in contrast, the traditional application process often fails to capture the full potential of a young person. Internships have also helped businesses get through some of their work, while allowing a young person to learn a new skill.
But over time, many of the best internships have become coveted and competitive, especially those at bigger employers. Some employers only hire interns from specific colleges, or require that you are at a certain stage in your degree to participate. For regular students — especially those with lower incomes or grades — who want to get hands-on experience before they graduate, internships at the best employers are often hard to find. Indeed, low-income students are more likely to work in sales, administrative support, and food service jobs than high-income students, which are often less useful for students with clear career ambitions.
Internships provide a clear value proposition for students. They can work hands-on in a professional environment, learn about how a business works and how to succeed in a working environment, and, in the process, develop relationships that may help them get ahead in their career. One proposed solution to bridging the gaps between low-income students and good internships would be to invest in more internship programs and for colleges to invest more time in educating students about those options. But the extent to which this can help is limited — internships are difficult for some employers to set up, and there is still no guarantee that people will find a good internship.
One other solution which has gained some traction lately is to disrupt the internship in favor of shorter-term, gig-like micro-internships. The idea behind a micro-internship is that a student will be able to work in a professional environment and gain all of the benefits associated with a traditional internship, without working for months at an employer. One micro-internship may last one month; another three weeks. This means that businesses can offer significantly more opportunities to students, and thus lower-income students are more likely to find an opportunity which is right for them. Parker Dewey, a micro-internship marketplace, is looking to make this the next big thing in internships.
The Promise of Micro-Internships
Micro-internships such as those acquired on Parker Dewey’s platform afford students a number of benefits over a traditional internship. The first major benefit of this model relates to access to opportunity. Micro-internship platforms make it easier for students to find internships. Because the internships are shorter in length, it is more likely that there are a larger number of opportunities available to students for which they can apply. These opportunities are also aggregated into one single place, which means a student does not need to go talk to many different employers or look on a variety of websites to find qualifying internships. Employers post a gig on the platform, and students can then apply for that micro-internship.
Secondly, the micro-internship model reduces the time commitment associated with an internship. Rather than spending three or six months at a part-time internship, a student can instead spend a few weeks or a month in a single internship. This means that students who cannot commit to longer-term engagements — which are often those with lower incomes — have the ability to participate in an internship that fits in with their schedule. In addition, because internships have a shorter time frame, employers can post more opportunities, thereby giving more young people access to opportunity.
The micro-internship model also makes it easier for a young person in college to build their network. Indeed, in a traditional internship, a student would get to know an employer and their teams over the space of a few months. This would afford the student some useful connections which they could leverage to find a good job when they graduate. Micro-internships, on the other hand, take this to the next level.
A student, rather than spending all of their time with one company, could develop relationships with two or three different companies in one academic year. They can meet new staff members, talk with new executives, and cultivate the connections they need as someone who may not have a prior network. During these engagements, a student will also be able to develop a portfolio of work which they show to employers. Their resume may include three different micro-internships, each at reputable companies, which will afford the student some leverage in job interviews after graduation.
Perhaps the largest distinction between the traditional internship and the micro-internship is the scale at which they can operate. A traditional internship can be difficult for a business to set up. They need to make space in their office, spend time finding applicants and talking with colleges, and for many employers, especially smaller companies, this process is not worth it. Platforms like Parker Dewey, however, make it easy for an employer to start an internship program — they only need to upload the gig to the website, and students will be able to apply. And as the marketplace grows, more students will be available to apply for micro-internships.
This scale is facilitated by the fact that micro-internships on Parker Dewey are remote-first. Therefore, an employer can attract college students from around the country to apply for a position, without having to worry about setting aside room in their office. For the student, this means that they do not have to travel or worry about commuting — two major barriers for low-income students — in order to participate in an internship.
The New Pathway to Employment
Internships were always intended to be an on-ramp for college students. Indeed, the main purpose of hiring an intern was to expand a company’s talent pipeline among younger students who would be able to contribute a new perspective to an organization. The micro-internship is no different, except it offers a few other benefits to both employers and students in terms of being an on-ramp to future employment.
Micro-internships give students the ability to try out many different jobs. Students can build experience in two or three different internships each year, and benefit from the networks those positions will help them create. This means that students will be more likely to find the type of job they want after graduation, which will help them plan ahead for the future. A micro-internship may also be a good way for a young person to experiment with different work environments before committing to a long-term internship where closer relationships with a company can be developed.
Employers can use micro-internships to try out many different students and assess their abilities. This would act as a more efficient talent funnel than the traditional internship model, where only a few young people would be able to participate each year due to managerial and time constraints. This, in turn, should increase the chance an employer finds the right candidate for a future job.
However, micro-internships are not perfect. There is always going to be a risk that employers use micro-internships as a way to access cheap labor. However, there are ways to mitigate this problem. Platforms like Parker Dewey which facilitate micro-internship positions could create clear guidelines around expectations. For example, Parker Dewey would state that if a student has been working in a certain position for longer than the initial contract, they are entitled to more money and an extended contract. Parker Dewey could also track student experiences in particular micro-internships to ensure the quality of positions on the platform. Indeed, micro-internship platforms may have to act as an independent arbiter as well, to ensure that both students and employers are on the same page about a particular engagement.
There is also the problem that working in an internship for a few weeks or a month may not provide students with enough experience. Students may struggle to find good jobs when they list on their resume that they have worked in three different micro-internships, each lasting only a month or so. Perhaps employers will see that as a negative signal. Conversely, perhaps employers will see that as a sign that someone is dedicated. We shall have to wait until micro-internships become more popular to find out.
On the other side of the table, perhaps, in the long-term, employers will discover that working with four different students is inefficient in the context of evaluating prospective hires. Instead, an employer may opt to go back to the traditional internship model, where they develop long-term relationships with students over the course of months.
The Future of Micro-Internships
Micro-internships are not perfect. However, this novel form of internships would greatly expand access to new working opportunities for students, and allow them to earn some money while studying for college.
Micro-internships will also allow students to build a portfolio of experience, and cultivate relationships with more employers, who may end up hiring the student after they graduate. The problems with quality assurance and signaling still loom, but there are ways to address those issues. Overall, the micro-internship may be the future of internships, and change the way we think about college work experience from long-term engagements to gig-like work.