How ‘Micro-Internships’ Could Make All Types of Students More Employable

How ‘Micro-Internships’ Could Make All Types of Students More Employable

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Hi. I'm Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. Subscribe here. Here's what I'm thinking about this week:

Internships go "micro."

Internships can be a great way for students to experience new fields of interest and the challenges of professional duties. But what about the students whose life circumstances don't allow them the luxury of relocating for a cool opportunity or taking on the equivalent of a second job, not to mention the students who lack the connections to land one?

Those were the students Jeff Moss had in mind in 2016, when he founded Parker Dewey. It's an online marketplace where employers post descriptions of short-term projects they'd like a student or recent graduate to tackle — for pay. Think: TaskRabbit goes to college.

"We believe college-to-career transitions are broken," Moss told me recently, noting that major companies still tend to recruit at a few favored colleges. He saw that firsthand, he said, when he worked with a venture-capital fund: "We would only hire from certain schools." What's more, he said, employers now use applicant-tracking systems "that aren't really predictive of who's going to be a good hire."

He sees micro-internships as a way to democratize that process. They can give "career launchers" (that's how the company describes its target market) experience and exposure to the kinds of tasks they're likely to encounter in entry-level posts, such as going through a list of attendees at a conference and prioritizing the top 20 sales prospects. They can also expose companies to a more diverse pool of potential hires in a low-risk setting.

I think micro-internships make a lot of sense. And several colleges seem to agree. A few of them have developed their own versions of the idea (sans the catchy name), while some, like Governors State University, a public institution in Illinois, are going all in on Parker Dewey. Governors State has assigned career-center staff members to help students optimize their chances of winning competitions for the internships posted on the marketplace.

Parker Dewey's model is simple. Employers post a job, with the price they're offering to pay. Typically the jobs pay $20 to $25 per hour, take from five to 40 hours to complete, and can be done remotely. Students bid for the jobs by writing a short application. Parker Dewey takes 10 percent of the total fee for itself.

Northeastern University's Experience Network, or XN, is a variation on the theme. Under that program, which runs primarily in online master's- and professional-degree programs, students remotely undertake six-to-eight-week projects for employers. The work is unpaid (Northeastern officials feared requiring payment would deter employers from participating), but typically it counts toward a class requirement or direct credit.

Stanford University's Design Summer, in which students spend the academic year identifying and designing a series of projects they'll take on with employers over the summer, is in the same vein, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Parker Dewey's model, and some of the others, probably couldn't have existed until recently. But now, as Moss noted, "companies have gotten comfortable with gig work." Of course, the gig economy can also be an exploitive one. Moss said Parker Dewey tries to protect against that by requiring all proposed gigs to pay well and to be "professional" in nature. Still, I wonder how the company will continue to ensure those standards as it expands.

Moss encourages employers to recognize that the projects are also designed as learning experiences for the students. It asks the employers to evaluate the students' work, and the company shares that feedback with its partner colleges. Moss, who's based in Chicago, said micro-internships help students "see the crosswalks" between their classwork and possible jobs.

Elaine Maimon, president of nearby Governors State, said they can also help students choose a major. It's one reason the institution, where about half of the 3,200 undergraduates are 25 and older, is even encouraging its faculty members to help students pursue micro-internships. Maimon likes them, she told me, because students, especially adults, can fit them into their busy lives.

That makes sense. But I'm also interested in results. So I'm pleased to hear that Northeastern plans to formally evaluate its four-year-old XN program, which will have served a total of 10,000 students by the end of this year. Initially, it will look at factors like XN students' persistence toward their degrees. But Chris Mallett, chief operating officer of Northeastern's Lifelong Learning Network, said eventually it would look at their job outcomes, too.

Quote of the week.

"Many for-profit institutions have succeeded in recruiting veterans (although they have not succeeded at graduating them at high rates). High-graduation-rate institutions should study the for-profits' approach to reaching veterans and learn from it."

From a report by Ithaka S+R on ways to enroll more veterans at well-resourced colleges. Only one in 10 veterans using GI Bill benefits attends an institution where the overall graduation rate is above 70 percent.

Predictions for the year ahead.

I'm a sucker for annual predictions, especially if they're specific enough to evaluate a year later. Three predictions for 2019 on college access, cost, and outcomes, made last week by Richard Garrett, fit that bill.

What does Garrett, chief research officer at Eduventures, expect?

1. At least five more research-intensive universities will launch low-priced online master's degrees, in the vein of the computer-science master's program pioneered by the Georgia Tech. "The trend is clear: top brand, low price."

2. A group of colleges will develop a course that they will collectively offer, under a license, to other institutions.

3. A consortium of researchers, policy makers, and universities working to improve colleges' role in promoting social mobility "will change the higher-education conversation."

I find that last big bet especially interesting — and encouraging. Garrett is known as a tech guy, but he's talking here about a project that's anything but tech-driven. The consortium Garrett is so optimistic about is called Collegiate Leaders in Increasing MoBility, or Climb.

The focus on colleges' role in promoting social mobility, which some of the Climb researchers helped to kick-start a few years ago, couldn't be more important. (If you caught the end of my "Trends" talk at the ASU-GSV conference last year, you know that's a drum I've been beating too.) The work of this group faces some structural roadblocks, as Garrett notes in his cogent write-up. But he considers Climb "a bold, ambitious initiative poised to bring much-needed clarity to the higher-education debate."

Is he right? What other big trends do you see on the horizon for the next year? Send me your thoughts, and I'll publish them in a future newsletter. (Meanwhile, if you're curious about Garrett's track record as a soothsayer, you can check out what he predicted a year ago, for 2018, here.)

Meet-up in Atlanta at AAC&U.

Are you going to the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges & Universities this month? Please join me and Dan Berrett, an editor of The Chronicle's Teaching newsletter, for a meet-up on Thursday, January 24, from from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Twenty-Two Storys, a bar in the atrium lobby of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta. Earlier that day, I'll be moderating a panel on the "Fierce Urgency of the Adult Student." Dan will be there to moderate a pre-meeting plenary on Value rubrics. We look forward to schmoozing with you.

Got a tip you'd like to share or a question you'd like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past editions or sign up to receive your own copy, you can do so here.

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