Reimagining Internships for Adult Learners and a New Era of Work

column | Future of Work

Reimagining Internships for Adult Learners and a New Era of Work

By Amy Ahearn (Columnist)     Feb 21, 2020

Reimagining Internships for Adult Learners and a New Era of Work

By one estimate, more than 23,000 students graduated from coding bootcamps in 2019—up nearly 50 percent from the previous year. But how quickly they will land a job is unclear. Concerns over lack of experience is the top reason deterring employers from hiring a bootcamp graduate, according to a 2019 report from Hired, an online marketplace for tech jobs.

This focus on experience is shared across industries. “Even for entry-level jobs, employers will expect to see one to two years of related experience,” Benedicta Doe, a former technical recruiter, told me, “Gaining relevant experience through internships, group projects or technical certifications is therefore important.” Similarly, Alphan Kirayoglu, who leads engineering and data teams at a healthcare startup in New York, said: “We look for 1-3 years of experience even for entry level roles because we realized it correlates with candidates onboarding more quickly and contributing more meaningfully in their first 90 days.”

Internships have long aimed to fill this “experience gap” for college students, allowing them to get their foot in the door with prospective employers and gain relevant experience for their resumes. Yet the models that work for twenty-something students often do not suit the realities of working adults who now make up 39 percent of the higher education market. They cannot put their life on hold—especially for in-person internships that are unpaid (which is also problematic in perpetuating privilege and class inequality).

While online education has helped make postsecondary credentials more attainable for a large segment of the U.S. population, the next horizon is expanding access to entry-level opportunities, particularly in technical fields. This will require new, flexible models that work for people juggling day jobs and personal life responsibilities.

A community college in Texas has seen this need firsthand. After launching IT and cybersecurity certificate programs, it developed a course specifically to help students land internships in these fields. Even though everyone who enrolled got an internship, only a handful of students actually decided to take this course in the first place. School officials found that, for working adults, the thought of leaving a full time job to pursue an internship didn’t make sense. They were willing to pursue opportunities on nights and weekends, but could not commit to short-term internships that interfered with keeping their current job.

This is not uncommon. Although adult learners may invest in training programs to gain in-demand skills, their careers sometimes stall upon completion. Gaining an entry-level role in a new field often involves taking professional and personal risks that might not be possible given their other responsibilities.

Even apprenticeships offered by companies like Amazon, Pinterest and Adobe that employ nearly 100 percent of graduates upon program completion have limited slots relative to the number of adult learners. The amount of registered apprenticeships in the U.S. does not match the number of working adults looking to uplevel their skills and find jobs in the tech sector.

Several new companies are offering creative models of virtual internships, remote apprenticeships, and employer-sponsored projects that students can complete from home on their own schedule. These models allow students to gain experience working for employers from the comfort of their own home or in between shifts at other jobs.

InsideSherpa has partnered with employers like KPMG, Accenture and J.P. Morgan Chase to offer “virtual internships” consisting of online videos and projects that students complete at their own pace. Hiring managers from the companies review the final assignments and, in some cases, also consider students who complete the programs for job opportunities.

Acadium similarly offers remote apprenticeships in the digital marketing field. Their platform pairs entry level talent with mentors, primarily at small and medium businesses and nonprofits around the world that are in need of project support. Apprentices complete marketing projects and gain real-world work experience that can be leveraged for new career opportunities.

Riipen offers a marketplace where faculty can post final projects for the courses they teach. Employers in turn can search this marketplace to find opportunities to work with students to get real tasks done, like a data visualization project or a competitive landscape analysis. This can be particularly attractive for nonprofits or small businesses with limited capacity to get these kinds of projects done in house. In exchange, students get feedback from employers and a chance to put a company project on their resume.

As work increasingly becomes remote and requires collaboration with distributed teams, a virtual internship is no longer a second-rate alternative. In many cases, it exactly mirrors workdays spent shifting between Zoom calls, Slack channels and Trello boards with colleagues stretched across time zones. Seeing how someone works on remote projects can be a strong and reliable signal for how they will perform in a tech-enabled role.

There’s one hurdle before these models can scale: few of the virtual internships are currently paid gigs. And while they should impose fewer opportunity costs necessary to cover things like childcare, transportation or lost wages at a day job in-person internship programs often impose, it will be critical for these providers to find ways to compensate students for online work.

New models are needed to democratize access to quality jobs, particularly for America’s working poor. To make them work, employers need to invest time in sponsoring and engaging with these initiatives in the same ways they invest in other programs to build their talent pipeline.

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