Virtually There: The New Face of Internships

What if your business or organization wanted to offer internship opportunities or develop an internship program but, because of space, time, equipment, payroll, or other constraints, you didn’t feel you could. Or what if, as a young graduate or student, you could land an international internship without ever leaving your home or dorm room? One that would just make your resume scream, ‘Hire me, I have real world experience!’ Sound far-fetched? Maybe not.

I recently received an email inviting me to attend an informational webinar about a virtual internship program at one university in the United States. The invitation itself piqued my interest on several levels. I was intrigued by the realization that our communication methods have become so technologically driven we tend to almost take them for granted. Here it was; an electronic mail announcing a web-based seminar about virtual internships – practical work experiences carried out remotely. My brain had a chuckle.

Since the concept of virtual internships was not something with which I was familiar, my curiosity was stirred on an even deeper level. I wanted to find out whether or not this might be an ‘idea worth spreading’ like the many Ted Talks making the rounds.

My cursory online search (because, let’s face it, how else does one research anything nowadays?) revealed that internship programs in general have existed in one form or another for centuries. Trade and craft professions typically took on apprentices, usually male, who were desirous of learning the skills needed to become an expert in that particular occupation or vocation. This type of on-the-job training could last anywhere from two to seven years, during which time the apprentice’s knowledge and skill levels would advance to or even surpass those of his master. Groups of tradesmen within a particular line of work (e.g. masons, carpenters, blacksmiths) often formed associations or guilds, as they became known, to support and, where necessary, advocate for the special interests of that trade.

Over time, apprenticeship programs evolved and became more formalized, eventually developing into various types of governmental or education-based regulation in many countries across the world, the aim of which is to maintain minimum standards for the health, safety and general well-being of workers in training.

Today, the internship experience is one that has great significance for both employers and interns alike. Most college and university programs have a built-in internship component that allows students to gain meaningful and valuable working experience while still undertaking studies or at the end of their education program. This experience becomes particularly important as a way out of the perennial paradox that makes employers shy away from hiring job applicants with no experience and causes would-be employees to lament that they’re not getting hired because they have no job experience.

The benefits, then, of internships overall are many. Students get to widen their knowledge, strengthen and sharpen their skills set in their chosen career direction, make powerful connections and build strong professional relationships that could have far-reaching and long-lasting future outcomes. If it is a paid internship, they may even earn a little – or a lot!

Employers too, who tend to value prior working experience over many other criteria, stand to gain just as much. Applicants who were involved in an internship program tend to make better new-hires as full time employees and are more likely to be still on the job after one year than those who did not have this type of trainee experience.

But what of the virtual internship model mentioned earlier? What could possibly be beneficial about an internship where you never actually set foot in an office or get out into the field?  Can such an idea even be taken seriously? Apparently so and very much so, judging from the abundance of information available surrounding it and the growing trend among job seekers and employers alike to explore and experiment with alternative work opportunities.

Like almost every other aspect of our lives, internships programs have become a part of the technological age and have undergone changes that have essentially revolutionized the way we think about and approach work. Around the world, many have already readily embraced author and entrepreneur, Tim Ferris’ mandate “to value performance over presence” by literally thinking outside the box, in this case, the traditional office environment. While, arguably, some types of jobs, like written assignments, computer-based projects, and social media applications would seem better suited to a virtual setting than others, given what is already possible with computer and other technology, it stands to reason that almost any job can become a virtual one, to a greater or lesser extent. There are even some surgeries that have been performed remotely!

So, before we write off virtual internships as just another internet craze that would only appeal to high-tech cyber gurus, consider our students in China, Cuba, North America or elsewhere who might just make the ideal intern for your business. At the same time, our local students need no longer miss out on gaining one of the many desirable internship opportunities now available with brands such as Samsung, Universal Studios or Toyota, to name a few, simply because they are not in that location.  Virtual internships offer great prospects for interaction, learning and collaboration with people of different ethnic, social and cultural backgrounds that might never happen otherwise. The possibilities are truly, virtually endless!  •