Ideas & Innovation

Virtual Internships in Rising Demand


Kenneth Durell knew he wanted to do an internship during the spring of his junior year at Columbia University, but a 30-minute-or-longer subway commute to an office was not an option. In addition to a full class load that semester, he was involved in student government, working as an intramural referee, training as a bartender, and preparing for a marathon. When he learned that Columbia University’s Center for Career Education had recently begun a virtual internship program in which he’d never have to set foot in an office, he jumped at the opportunity. Says Durell: “A big, big draw was that I didn’t have to leave Columbia.”

For the next three months, Durell interned with the New York-based Business Council for Peace, a nonprofit network of professionals offering pro bono business help to entrepreneurs in conflict-torn countries. He fit the internship around his classes, working 12 hours a week and communicating with the group’s staff via Skype, e-mail, and conference calls. His assignment: helping raise funds for female Rwandan entrepreneurs visiting the U.S. and reviewing applications for the program.

“My work space was essentially my dorm room and if I had a computer and Internet connection, I was essentially at work,” says Durell, 22, now a senior.

Nontraditional internships such as Durell’s, in which students work for an employer remotely via an Internet connection, are becoming increasingly common on today’s college campuses. Students are drawn by the flexible nature and the experience they gain, while employers like them because they don’t have to worry about providing office space and can assign projects to interns in other states or countries, say career experts. Career-services officers and those who run national intern job-search boards say they have seen an uptick in the last few years in such offerings—most of which are unpaid—especially from small ventures and startups seeking additional help to take their businesses to the next level. Larger companies, too, are starting to explore offering these types of internships. Even the U.S. State Dept. has started the Virtual Student Foreign Service, which pairs college students, or “eInterns,” with internships at diplomatic posts overseas and at State Dept. domestic offices.

Geni Harclerode, an assistant director at the University of Michigan’s Career Center, says she has recently seen an increase in listings for virtual internships, especially those asking for student help with social-media campaigns and blogging. Remote opportunities can serve as equalizers for some students, allowing those with limited resources to apply for internships in cities where they otherwise couldn’t afford to work, she says.

Working From Afar in Manhattan

“Most students I speak to love the idea of interning in what they perceive as a glamorous locale like New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, but the reality is the cost of living in those cities can be overwhelming,” Harclerode says. “I think there is an appeal with some of these virtual internships because they can still contribute to an organization while living at home for the summer and saving money”

At Urban Interns, an intern-job board that connects small business owners and startups with people who want to do part-time jobs and internships, about 40 percent of the listings on the site this year are for virtual internships, up from 30 percent last year, says Cari Sommer, the company’s co-founder.

Lauren Berger, who runs the website internqueen.com and recently wrote the e-book All Work, No Pay: Finding an Internship, Building Your Résumé, Making Connections, and Gaining Job Experience (Random House Digital, 2012), says the number of virtual internship listings on her site has tripled in the last few years. She runs a virtual internship program for her company and says career-services centers at universities are starting to warm to them, provided they are structured enough and have a point person who can give students daily guidance and feedback on assignments, whether communications are conducted via Skype, video conferencing, or e-mail, she says. Still, students should be wary of accepting just any opportunity they see online, she notes.

“Students need to be cautious about what they are getting themselves into and should make sure it is a legitimate opportunity,” Berger says.

Chuck Cherry, 18, a freshman and business major at Georgia College and State University, is doing an internship this winter with JumpStart:HR, a small Washington-based human resources consulting firm, for which he produces PowerPoint presentations and videos. Cherry wanted to get some business experience on his résumé during his first year of college, whether in an office or not, he says.

“Where I’m in school down South, things are a little bit slower, so I have to go out of my way to set myself apart from any other business administration majors,” says Cherry.

Columbia University’s Syeda Lewis, associate director of experiential education at the school’s career office, says she believes her school is the first university in the U.S. to offer a formal virtual internship program. The program, now in its third year, annually matches 10 to 15 students with virtual internships vetted and chosen by the school. To ensure that students are prepared for the experience, the career office makes certain they get training in time management skills and how to communicate effectively with virtual bosses before they start work, she says.

Good Fit for Nontraditional Students

Apart from suiting college students with hectic schedules, virtual internships can be ideal for nontraditional students such as Heidi Johnston, 33, a business and marketing major at Southern New Hampshire University, who also holds down a full-time job at AAA Northern New England. For the last four months, Johnston has been doing market research and social media for Braathe Enterprises, a Saratoga Springs (N.Y.)-based consulting firm that works with small and midsized businesses. She does the work late at night, when she gets home from school, or in the morning before work.

“I did have some hesitation at first about doing a virtual internship, but I absolutely got everything I expected out of it—and probably a little more,” says Johnston, who will point to the experience when she applies for marketing jobs next fall.

Robert Braathe, who runs the company and is also a business instructor at Skidmore College, launched his internship program last January to give students more work experience and help him scale his business, he says. In the last year, he’s engaged 30 students to do four-month-long unpaid internships for his small business, working from five to seven hours weekly on projects that range from designing websites and logos to handling social-media campaigns for his clients. Most of the virtual interns are from New York, but some live as far away as Illinois and California.

“It helps me with the bells and whistles I might otherwise not have the time for,” Braathe says

Employers are increasingly asking top students from in-person summer internship programs to continue working remotely from campus during the succeeding school year. Debbie Linville, a corporate recruiter and intern coordinator at Indianapolis-based Interactive Intelligence (ININ), has asked about one summer intern per year to continue working virtually for the company since Interactive Intelligence launched its internship program in 2007, she says. So far, off-site internships have been a success and the company has gone on to hire some of those students for full-time jobs, Linville says. A potential next step? Hiring students from India to work remotely. Says Linville: ”The program has definitively got some legs.”

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Damast is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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