The PIE: Tell me about how you founded Virtual Internships.
Daniel Nivern: We founded Virtual Internships three years ago. The idea was that while it’s great to get international work experience, not everybody can afford it or has the time to go overseas. So we created a similar sort of program that incorporates a blended learning format through a combination of technology and online support.
Today we have 18 different career fields, (our most popular are finance, business, engineering, law and marketing) and students can undertake the remote internship in conjunction with our online, accredited internship curriculum, CareerBridge.
“While it’s great to get international work experience, not everybody can afford it or has the time to go overseas”
The great thing, which is part of why we started it in the first place, is the accessibility of it. Underrepresented groups can do a virtual internship. It can be done alongside your studies. It can be done alongside a job. It can be done if you have a family or if you have commitments at home. It’s more sustainable from an environmental perspective and it has a lower cost.
That’s not discounting the brilliance of going overseas, and we never would. But not everybody can do that; this opens up a whole new world for a lot more people.
The PIE: How has your target market changed since the outbreak of Covid-19?
DN: A lot of the students who were going out on our Asia programs have converted and are instead doing our virtual internship programs. They can choose one of two tracks.
They can select the global track where they focus on a particular country. So they could choose China, for example, and get online language classes in Chinese and work with a Chinese company. Alternatively, they can focus on a career field track where the primary focus is the field, eg finance or engineering, and the secondary focus is the country.
The PIE: How do you prepare companies to accept virtual interns?
DN: The workplace is changing. People’s habits are changing. Employers are changing. There’s growing research about remote work and the use of technology and online platforms. So all of this was happening to an extent already. But again, it’s vastly expedited because of the virus. A lot of companies are trying to understand how to get used to this new normal.
We prepare them with the host company guide with best practices for running a remote internship, and they are assigned a dedicated account manager to support them through the process. It gives the companies access to lots of different technology platforms that they can use to make it a positive experience.
Two other key points are that they have to have a detailed project placement plan with a week-by-week breakdown. A key element in this is the requirement that Host Companies provide consistent mentoring, assessment and feedback, which I think is important for any kind of virtual experience and helps to ensure both intern and company stay on track. We train the companies on all of these things.
“We’ve actually found from the feedback that a lot of supervisors prefer [online internships]”
The PIE: Are you ever met with hesitation from employers?
DN: There can be a little bit of hesitation at first because the concept is quite foreign. But what we’ve actually found from the feedback is that a lot of supervisors prefer it. Our program is between 20 and 30 hours per week, so it’s a really good amount of time for a supervisor to give work to the student. In contrast, for the physical internship, there’s a sense that the intern must always be busy and I think that can add extra pressure.
On the flip side, while I think you can certainly build a rapport with somebody virtually, as we’re doing on video calls now all the time, it’s not quite the same as having the face-to-face interactions like going out and grabbing lunch.
The PIE: How do you mitigate that?
DN: By doing two things. One is trying to make sure that the intern is integrated into any communication channels that are used across the company. And then the other thing is trying to schedule the occasional informal or ‘coffee’ chat between the supervisor and intern as well.
Mentorship and feedback with a virtual internship program are really important because they’re not getting that daily from their supervisor. It’s essential to incorporate structured mentoring and feedback through weekly assessments.
The PIE: What happens when interns and companies are on different time zones?
DN: We do try to keep people within a reasonably suitable time zone. So a lot of US students, for example, will work with companies in Europe. But the other thing is the communication between the company and the intern doesn’t need to be constant. The project is planned in advance and broken down week-by-week so that the students know what they’re doing.
We do encourage daily contact, but it can just be in written form, and we suggest at least a weekly call. We also recognise that navigating the timezone challenge can be part of the learning experience for the intern.
The PIE: What has the reception been like from universities?
DN: In the early days of Virtual Internships, we had some really forward-thinking university partners, for example, Aston Business School in the UK or the University of Adelaide in Australia. I think what’s changed is that universities now realise that they want to offer international work experience to students.
Still, it’s obviously limited at the moment, and they want to find ways to make it more accessible and scalable going forward. As a result of that, we’ve added around 30 new partners to the program in the last two months alone.
“We’re excited by the growth of university partnerships, and this also adds an extra layer of support for the student”
We’re excited by the growth of university partnerships, and this also adds an extra layer of support for the student. There are also some great scholarships out there through our partnerships. For example, the University of Birmingham is offering scholarships to their students, and so is the University of York. In the US, students can get academic credit, and it has been great to form partnerships with the University of Pennsylvania, Michigan State University, Lehigh University amongst others.
It’s also a really interesting program for high school students and we have a program specifically designed for them, called our Foundations Program.
The PIE: How do future employers view virtual internships?
DN: I think as positively as they would in-person ones. As part of the program, interns have not only a program experience manager but an internship coach as well. So we have somebody designated to get them thinking beyond the program. We help them to articulate the experience, to brush up their CV and improve their Linked-in.
They’ve got work experience for a company that should be in the sector of their choice. They’ve also shown they know how to work with people from different backgrounds and to be quite adaptable to using technology to work remotely.