Are online internships worthwhile?

Mar 17, 2021 | Work experience/internships | 2 comments

Online internships can be just as good (or better!) than their traditional counterparts, says Holly Sach at ProjectSet.

The global pandemic has exposed the fragility of the traditional (physical) internship model. ISE research shows that the number of internships declined by nearly a third in 2020 as companies prioritised resources to address the impact of Covid-19.

This is likely to accentuate the skills gap and socio-economic inequity in the graduate talent pool that may take several years to reverse; in the aftermath of the 2007 financial crisis, students from disadvantaged background suffered greater learning loss and took up to seven years to catch up with their less unfortunate peers.

The same pandemic, on the other hand, offers us a unique opportunity to significantly minimise the potential damage by embracing many of the digital innovations and tools that have rapidly permeated mainstream education during the past 12 months. More specifically, online or virtual internships empower us to make these engagements.

Here are three reasons why:

  • More affordable by eliminating the need for expensive physical workspaces, commuting, relocation, or work attire.
  • More efficient by drastically reducing the time and effort spent in career fairs, interviews and review meetings, through digitisation.
  • More impactful by emphasising skills and practices that are more consistent with the future of work, e.g. remote working, digtial-collaboration savvy, project management, etc.

Presently, an estimated half-a-million students compete for c.100,000 internship opportunities in the UK, many of which are unpaid and/ or London-based.

Many of these opportunities, become inaccessible for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who can neither afford the relocation/ commuting costs nor exploit social connections to land these internships.

The consequent socio-economic disparity is further accentuated by the ‘hidden curriculum’ – the many unwritten and subtle lessons that students pick up from their teachers, mentors, and student peers – that prevent students from disadvantaged backgrounds from acquiring or showcasing their ‘soft skills’ – confidence, appropriate speaking manner, commercial awareness, etc.

Online internships offer a pragmatic way to grow and stabilise the number of opportunities through a combination of:

  • Attracting more SMEs and start-ups that can typically absorb 1-2 interns – online programmes have a significantly reduced scale threshold, making hiring even one intern more affordable.
  • Making the selection process more objective, structured and transparent
  • Introducing ‘light-touch’ programmes that demand significantly lower involvement of employers and rely more on technology (e.g. simulated projects, online skills training content, etc.). While these programmes offer a less immersive experiences, these equip students with relevant skills and credentials and significantly boost their likelihood of landing a permanent job.

This is particularly important now given that a larger share of students from the most deprived areas join high-tariff universities over the past year, according to the Office for Students. As diversity and inclusivity becomes central to employers’ agenda, online internships offer a viable way to reach 10x more universities and assess 100x more candidates in a reliable and efficient way.

Finally, the long-standing argument of a ‘superior cultural and immersive experience’ of physical internships may become less relevant as workplaces and practices are materially transformed in the post-Covid world.

Many large employers (e.g. Barclays, JP Morgan, etc.) have announced a blended work model (50-50 WFH and work-in-office) for the future while a recent study by Slack found that 72% of workers would like to continue at least partial WFH post-Covid.

These pronouncements suggest a clear need to redefine the what and how of work culture in organisations; isn’t the ability to thrive working remotely a more important advantage? Virtual work experience is therefore not only a means to an end but a desirable experience worth aspiring for, particularly for the youngest and newest members of the workforce: Gen Z.


Manging online internships

Online internships, however, need to be managed differently than their traditional counterparts.

In online internships, interns are typically assigned and assessed on a discrete piece of work. The engagement is therefore often part-time and light-touch, i.e. with fewer, planned touchpoints.

It is important for companies to use purpose-built platforms which have been engineered to support these specific work-flows. Using generic tools not specifically built for internships (e.g. video meeting tools) may be workable, but the overall learning impact and outcomes for students and employers will be more limited. We believe such platforms offer better user experience, superior learning outcomes, promotes equity and diversity and build the right skills.

Even as we prepare for a blended future of physical and online internships, the online component deserves to be practiced and managed with its distinctive rules, models and tools, for maximum overall impact.

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  1. Laura Kendrick

    SO pleased to see the advantages of online internships being promoted. I have recruited 35 graduate interns since September 2020 all working in 100% remote internship positions. The feedback from candidates and clients is glowing. As with all types of work where WFH is possible, I sincerely believe businesses need to accept the positives of this forced situation and implement them to improve future working practices. If you’re a business leader who hasn’t adapted and can’t see the benefits such change can bring, I’m worried for your future.

  2. ProjectSet

    Thanks for featuring us ISE! It’s been great to see and support your advocacy of remote internships over the past few months.

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