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How to make a virtual work placement successful

January 2021

Virtual internships and work experience might not be perfect, but they still offer a vital link between businesses and young people desperate for their first taste of work life - as long as they are done correctly, writes Tonia Galati

According to a recent YouGov poll, more than 60% of UK employers cancelled all or some of their work experience and internship placements because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Having worked with university students and new graduates for more than 12 years now, it's hard for me to over-emphasise how disheartening this statistic is. Students rely on internships to build up their CVs - it gives them something to hone in on when they then apply for graduate roles.

This is especially true for disadvantaged students who don't have any kind of professional network. If you come from a low-income environment and you're perhaps the first in your family to go to university, you usually can't lean on your parents to open doors for you.

A paid placement, where you gain some confidence and awareness of the expectations of everyday working life, is a lifeline. It increases your social capital. Without that experience, finding your first job is likely to become more difficult.

Placements are also an unrivalled way for young people to be able to 'test the waters' in terms of where they may want their career path to go. At 21 or 22 you can easily find yourself making career decisions that will affect your whole life. Work experience is an important safety net.

Virtual internships are something we have successfully trialled in our own office - and I can hands-down say that they have been a success.

Pressure on universities

For universities, internships are equally important. Tutors are under constant pressure to find ways for their students to gain real-world learning experience. Work placements are a proven way for their students to test out what they've learned in the classroom and pick up vital clues about how business really works. If that real world experience isn't there, there's nothing to link those years of study back to.

I know that universities are very concerned about the sudden dearth of work placement schemes and internships - especially those with lots of students from low-income backgrounds.

Businesses missing out

Students and universities only tell half the story. When they are connected to businesses via work placement schemes, businesses benefit, too. Not just large corporations, but SMEs as well. Approximately 90% of graduates will work for an SME in their first job post-graduation.

Internships at both SMEs and corporations are a great way to ensure a steady flow of fresh ideas. When placements are sidelined, this springboard for new thinking is removed from the equation. Likewise, the recruitment pipeline, which typically sees interns applying for - and often getting - graduate jobs at companies they have worked for, is turned off, too.

I'm not going to try and downplay the devastating impact that the coronavirus pandemic has inflicted upon UK businesses. In many cases, businesses are struggling to stay afloat. But while this does explain the dramatic reduction in work placement and internship activities, it doesn't mean that we should lose all hope.

With so many employees now working from home, virtual internships are very much a viable solution.

Our interns all have a very clear job to do, and because of this they have added value to us as a small business.

A path to virtual success

Virtual internships are something we have successfully trialled in our own office - and I can hands-down say that they have been a success.

What we have seen over the past few months is that, just like in-person work placements, the virtual version needs to have structure. Our interns all have a very clear job to do, and because of this they have added value to us as a small business. One has been writing a business plan for us, another has been creating video commercials.

These tasks have been fulfilling to them, as they know they are working on something that will be used. There have been a few hiccups, but the pluses greatly outweigh the minuses. Here’s three key things I have learned:

  1. Help with feelings of isolation - be mindful of the fact that it is easy for your interns to feel quite isolated if working remotely. Unlike existing staff, who are up to speed on how to do their job and may already be used to working alone, interns need a little more human interaction.
  2. Make them feel part of the team - I make sure that we have a virtual team meeting once a week where we all get together and share what we're doing, and discuss any challenges. We also have regular one-to-one virtual meetings with our interns so they don't feel abandoned or left out - plus we encourage them to communicate with the other interns. It's a good way for them to feel connected without putting undue pressure on other staff.
  3. Show them their value - it's not about doing piecemeal stuff, it's about them knowing what their contribution is going to mean for the business. Give them things to get stuck into that will be used. Your interns also need to feel challenged - while being assured that it's OK to make the occasional mistake, too.

If you've not yet offered any virtual work placements, I would heartily encourage you to try it - but do give it due thought first.

I say this because one of my key concerns is that virtual internships may muddy the work experience waters. We'd moved away from unpaid placements, and need to make sure that those businesses that still want to connect with students - and who see virtual placements as a way to do that - do it properly.

Let's not let virtual work experience and internships become just a box-ticking exercise.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Prospects/Jisc

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