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As the official start of summer draws near, students and companies are getting into the swing of #internseason.

If the overflow of office selfies on Instagram doesn’t convince you, just look at the last-minute job postings for summer interns on Indeed. This year, companies are looking at fresh ways to leverage young talent during the summer and beyond while students are looking outside traditional channels to get experience. Enter: micro-internships. 

What Are Micro-Internships?  

Micro-internships are highly specific, often virtual, project-based contracts that consists of anywhere from five to 40 hours of paid work over a few days or weeks. Unlike its traditional counterpart, a micro-internship is a task with a deadline – not a full-time job. Assignments can range from market research to data entry and web testing.  

A product of the gig economy 

The gig economy is here to stay whether we like it or not. So it is no surprise that internships have joined the mix of freelance work available.  

Like many freelance or contract positions, micro-internships are usually remote. This means that students can take on virtual internships while still completing their coursework. For companies, this means having access to ambitious, young talent year-round.  

With more full-time employees having the option to work remotely, a growing number of companies now have the infrastructure and know-how to manage remote projects and workers. A virtual internship program, therefore, shouldn’t be too out of place. 

In addition, many companies are already using freelancers. Instead of simply ignoring or tolerating the trend, why not harness it? Through the increasing acceptance of the gig economy, managers at companies from startups to giants like Microsoft have found micro-internships a useful tool to build their talent pipeline.  

A diverse talent pipeline 

With financial risk minimized, companies can more confidently take a chance on someone that may be from a different major or background than their usual candidate profile. For example, a seasoned and talented programmer may have chosen to pursue a business degree. A tech company’s applicant tracking system could automatically filter out this high-potential candidate simply because he/she does not have an engineering or computer science degree.

Companies are realizing that factors like GPA, major and school are not the end-all-be-all in assessing fit. In fact, they simply aren’t enough anymore. By encouraging managers to think outside of their traditional recruiting networks – such as target schools and referrals – and to include those candidates whom they may have otherwise overlooked, micro-internships can increase a company’s diversity. Through an untapped candidate pool that could include talented future employees, these gig-economy internships could give companies an edge in recruiting. 

Huge savings 

Internship programs can be very expensive. A full-time, $14/hr intern for 10 weeks is a $5,600 dent in payroll. Add to that the need for desk space, a computer, and an employee to hire and manage them. Some companies may also include transportation and accommodations, further increasing expenses. 

A micro-intern, on the other hand, is paid a flat fee (usually a few hundred dollars), requires no desk or computer, and companies won’t feel obligated to provide – or guilty for not providing – transportation and housing stipends. 

Speaking of savings, it is important to note that the high costs associated with bad hires is a prevalent fear in many hiring managers. With financial risk minimized, micro-internships provide a “try before you buy” solution to staffing. Companies can test-drive talent and get insight on a person’s work quality and work ethics through a short-term, tangible assignment. At the end of a project, a manager may choose to continue the relationship through another project, an official internship, or even permanent employment.  

Fewer barriers to access 

The topic of privilege surrounding internships has been covered exhaustively. What hasn’t been discussed enough, however, is the opportunity for greater access in micro-internships. They are an intuitive solution for students whose circumstances don’t allow for traditional brick-and-mortar internships, whether that’s because of finances, geographic location, lack of connections, or some other reason. The remote nature of micro-internships accommodates not just class schedules, but also work schedules for students who need to have a part-time job.  

Fixing the supply curve 

It is not an uncommon tragedy that a young graduate is forced to take on a menial job because of the difficult transition from student to professional. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many choose to pursue healthcare, teaching, or law – not because it is their passion, but because those are one of the few programs with a clear line of sight to a job. It is clear that the college-to-career link is broken; there are simply not enough co-op or internships available. 

When young graduates are barricaded from entering the industry, there is a terrible waste of talent. Though not as immersive as full-time co-ops or internships, micro-internships can still serve as career launchers. A savvy graduate who can string together a handful of them can get quite an enriching experience – much better than whipping together lattes at the local Starbucks. 

Instant access to quality talent  

Micro-interns can be especially valuable to startups and small businesses. With such limited bandwidth, it is critical that extra help comes fast, on-demand, at a low cost, and with minimal administrative burden. The reality is that many companies don’t have the resources or even the need for a full-time intern. With micro-internships, a small company can farm out specific one-off tasks for a fixed fee. Gone are the lengthy hiring processes and orientations, allowing managers to organize and hand-off projects quickly.  

How it works 

Generally speaking, a hiring manager simply posts a project description and sets the price. This can be done on any freelance platform such as Upwork or Fiverr, traditional job boards, or simply the company’s website. Then he/she reviews the applicants, selects the best one, and provides instructions for the project. The manager can set points for feedback along the way, as well as a final deadline. If the intern performs well, he/she may be hired for another project or referred to HR to be recruited as a longer term intern or even a permanent employee.  

Possible drawbacks 

If unpaid, micro-internships can take advantage of free labour by offloading “grunt work” while offering very little in terms of experience. However, this can be said for any internship – traditional or micro. The key here is to establish clear expectations from the start. The student and manager should agree on the scope of work, deadline and who to report to and get feedback from. This way, a student can quickly assess whether an opportunity will benefit them, and the manager can avoid having to restart and reassign a project. A successful micro-intern needs a different skillset than a traditional intern. He/she must be more independent and self-driven, must communicate well across different platforms, and must be proactive in getting responses or feedback as a remote worker. A successful employer, on the other hand, would approach the micro-internship as a learning opportunity for the student by providing constructive feedback.  

Are micro-internships a passing trend or the next big thing? While they are not meant to replace traditional internship programs, they have a place in the college-to-career transition, whether that’s through an opportunity to gain work experience with a full-time course load, a stepping stone to a full-fledged internship, or a gateway to permanent employment. For companies, the benefits speak for themselves: lower overhead, on-demand help, and possibly an introduction to a future high-performing employee.

 


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