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Micro-internships proving an attractive alternative in the COVID era

A detailed article on the growing use of micro-internships appears in the October issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For subscription information, click here.

Micro-internships can hardly be called “new,” but there’s no doubt they have become even more attractive since the advent of COVID-19. University leaders actively engaged with employers have shown increased interest as many traditional internships have been withdrawn by companies.

“In our current situation, with everything being virtual, beginning in the summer a lot of students who had opportunities saw them pulled back,” says Maureen Johnson of Wayne State University Career Services. “A lot of students out there said, ‘What do I do now?’ They reached out to me for other avenues they could pursue — even just volunteering. This [the micro-internship concept] is just perfect.”

“COVID was obviously the main driver,” adds Cheryl Brooks, PhD, associate provost for career & professional development at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “We obviously had to move to remote; students currently on internships were brought back in April, with safety as a primary concern. So, we looked for what experience was out there that students could do remotely. Second, because everyone was looking for internships, they became very competitive to get. I thought: What’s like ‘half’ an internship? That would be a project.”

“We signed up for a [micro-internship] program three years ago, but not with the same urgency [we have now],” states Yolanda Seabrooks, Career Pathways Initiative project manager at Morgan State University. “We had it in a suite of things we offered students, but we did not have a coordinated strategy. With COVID and the loss of internships, they became a larger priority to share with the university community.”

“I was very lucky to have been part of a SoACE (Southern Association of Colleges and Employers) webinar on micro-internships in the fall of 2019,” recalls Elery K. Rojas, MBA, career specialist-internships for employer engagement at Florida International University. “As soon as the session ended, I signed up to have an info session with Jeffrey Moss (founder and CEO of ParkerDewey, the pioneer and leading firm in micro-internships), and then I was able to schedule a leadership meeting with him. We were fascinated with the untapped potential for our students. I quickly created a plan to start the ParkerDewey and Micro-internship soft launch for Spring 2021 on January 6th 2020, and with COVID hitting in March in Miami I was able to push the full launch of the program.”

According to Moss, during the COVID crisis micro-internships have become even more desirable for companies and universities whose brands are not extremely well known. “There are massive companies I never heard of and that college students have not heard of or do not apply to,” he notes. “If I’m a junior thinking of an internship, am I going to ‘take a chance’ on a start-up? Probably not. But if I am the same junior and I have the opportunity to do a project, yeah, I’ll work on that and see what I like.”

And for lesser known schools, he continues, the situation actually gets worse when companies start thinking more about budget and paring back on their focus schools. “All of a sudden, smaller colleges or schools that do not have a large number of alumni already working at companies have a disadvantage,” he points out.

Moss adds, however, that COVID has yielded a geographic silver lining. “Now, the budget for travel is not on the table,” he observes. “This can open up the funnel and you can start accessing students all over country. Yes, there’s history, where recruitment has been done, and what your ‘feeder schools’ are — but this micro model becomes a solution for that. ‘Let’s recruit at schools where we do not necessarily recruit.’”

The Parker-Dewey model, created about five years ago and now encompassing formal partnerships with about 400 universities and colleges, involves “engaging highly motivated college students to do a great job as freelancers — not just to earn money but to demonstrate their skills and to learn about the company. The company can get better work quality and help it compete more effectively.”

A micro-internship, he explains, will typically take a college student anywhere from 10 to 40 hours to complete and is usually due a few days to a few weeks after the project is assigned. “You may need someone to help you research and draft an article you need next week, or you may need someone to create a social media calendar,” says Moss. “These are short-term professional projects, 100% paid and paid fairly — on the average you’ll see $350-$400.” The company defines the project, and the student gets 90% of the fee. The remaining 10% is retained by Parker-Dewey to cover its cost. There are no additional fees if the company subsequently decides to hire the student.

“This does not replace the summer internship,” says Moss. “Think of summer internships as engagements and full-time employment as marriages; these are dates — you explore one another.”

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