Micro-Internships: How to Leverage the Gig Economy to Find Great Young Talent

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CONSIDER ME a really big fan of college internships.

I’ve told this story before, but I trace my long career as a journalist and media executive back to my college internship on the Metro Desk of the Los Angeles Times.

I got class credit instead of pay, but that wasn’t the point. I wanted a chance to write something that actually got published in the LA Times, and the internship gave me the opportunity to do that about a half-dozen times. The experience was my big break, because it gave me the chance to prove myself in a professional setting.

But, that was then. College internships — paid, unpaid, and for class credit — have gone through ups and down but now seem to be on the upswing again. In fact, there’s even a hot new internship trend that seems totally in synch with our 21st workplace.

If you like the gig economy, you’ll love micro-internships.

What is a micro-internship?

Forbes recently described them like this:

“Micro-internships are short-term, paid, professional assignments that are similar to those given to new hires or interns. They usually consist of 5 to 40 hours of work, and can occur any time of year. They are highly specific, project-based positions, often in arenas like lead generation, content creation, or data entry. Students receive a fixed fee, typically equating to $15 to $25 per hour, and are given between one week and one month to complete their project.”

Jeffrey Moss, CEO of Parker Dewey, the organization that pioneered this concept, talked to me recently about the differences between traditional internships and micro-internships, and the benefits for today’s college students. He said:

“Regular internships are wonderful. I’m a huge fan of them. They are a great way to learn about companies, about different industries, different roles, and a great way for companies to learn about students from different backgrounds.

The problem is that there are not enough of those. What we recognized is that there’s an opportunity year round for college students to work on short-term projects. Whereas a typical summer internship may be 8 to 10 weeks over the course of a summer, micro internships are project based. They tend to require anywhere from 5 to 30 or maybe 40 hours in total. They tend to be due anywhere from a few days to a few weeks out, and, they can take place year-round.”

How does this kind of internship work?

That sounds good, but what does a manager, HR professional or internship coordinator do to make a micro-internship happen? Here’s how Jeffrey Moss described it:

“We wanted to make it as easy as possible for both sides. A company has someone log into Parker Dewey and post a project. What do you need done? When do you need it? How much do you want to pay? We want someone to do competitive research on blah, blah, blah. We want it to kick off on February 28. We need it done March 15. We think it will take you 20 hours. We’ll pay you $400. Companies post those projects on Parker Dewey.

What happens next is that college students and recent graduates who are on our site will see the project. They have ownership if they want to apply or not. They might look at a project and say, ‘Oh, I’m in finals week, I don’t have time.’ Or, they might look at it and say, ‘Oh, I never thought about a role in the financial services industry, but this looks sort of intriguing. Let me click a button and apply.’

They apply for the projects, the companies see all the applicants, pick who they want, and then work directly with the individual for the duration of the project.

It’s important to know that we do zero marketing to the college students and recent graduates. Every one of the college students are on our platform because they want to be. We don’t even allow colleges to require that.”

An addition to traditional internships

Here’s my big question: Are micro-internships intended to take the place of the traditional summer or semester-long internships? Will they put the old model out of business?

Jeffrey Moss says “no.”

“To be clear, we’re not trying to replace the 10 week internship. This lets students dip their toe in the water. … If I’m a tech student, for instance, I might think I only want to work at Google or Facebook, but then I see an interesting project for JP Morgan that’s tech related. I get to dip my toe in the water and find that ‘Oh wow, JP Morgan’s doing some interesting stuff on tech. Maybe this is worth me exploring more.’ It’s a pathway to the traditional internship, not the replacement.

The students immediately get it. They can get professional experience. They can get in the door. They can demonstrate skills and even get paid for it. They love it. On the company side, it’s interesting because we have two different stakeholder groups. One is the individual hiring manager, the busy professional.

Their point of pain is, ‘I have too much work on my plate, so maybe I can have a college kid help with some of those projects.’ These are things that for someone with 5, or 10, or 20 years of experience may not be the highest and best use of time, but for a college kid, they’re going to be pretty interesting. They love it …

On our platform, for the duration of the project, the student is actually a 1099 independent contractor of Parker Dewey. We provide fixed fee consulting services to our clients. In the words of one financial services organization, we’re like going to a consulting firm. We’re like going to McKinsey. When that firm works with McKinsey, they don’t have any employment law related interaction with the consultants at McKinsey — the same way they don’t with us. Again, that makes it easy.

The second thing is that we have no conversion fee. There’s no temp to perm ever, and we guarantee we never will do that because we want companies to use this platform as a pathway to hire, and we want the students to use it as a way to find a job. We don’t want a situation where the company says, “Oh, I was going to hire Geoff, but I have to go pay someone 20 percent of his first year’s salary. Let me look at someone else. Or, instead of paying her 60 grand, I’m only going to pay her 50 because I have to go pay some staffing firm.’

We don’t charge any of that. Those two things get rid of a lot of the risk for companies, and once we explain all those things, the whole conversation changes.”

What one college student thinks

This makes micro-internships sound pretty interesting, but what do the people on the other side of the coin — students and the companies offering internships — think of them?

Suzan Batamuliza did a micro-internship shortly after graduating with a finance degree from Chicago’s Roosevelt University back in 2015. She told me:

I graduated with a finance degree, but I was never sure what I was going to use it for. So I went to Parker Dewey. I think I must have seen a Facebook post from somebody about it. But I ended up on their website and I’m looking and I’m thinking, ‘This is interesting. I could try out different types of work.’ My understanding was that you work on a project, see if you like it, get paid for it, then move to the next project, work on it, see if you like it. I was thinking that this is the best way I can figure out what it is I want to do.

I applied for maybe two or three projects that I thought I might be interested in, and one of the projects was with MHolland (a plastics company in Chicago). I worked in their credit department and I was going to help them with some credit reviews.

So I get to MHolland and I do a good job. I was supposed to work for them for two weeks, which is what I thought the project was going to be, but they ended up extending it for a month. A month became three months, and at the end of the three months they were saying, ‘We like the work you’re doing. You seem to understand everything that is happening. We would like you to interview for a full-time job.’ And so I ended up becoming a full-time employee.

Without the micro-internship I would have never had that opportunity to go in, even for a short time, and make the connections and build the network. That is something Parker Dewey did for me.

To give you a bit more context on MHolland, I was the first junior analyst they ever hired. They had always hired experienced professionals. They took a chance on bringing in a student like me, and they taught me pretty much everything.

Micro-internships are allowing companies to take a chance on students. They could easily pick a professional who has done this before and that would probably be easier. But at the end of the day, you want your company to keep growing so you want to attract talent. And finding talent this way grows the company, right?”

The view from the employer side

Daniel Hartman has a similar perspective. He’s a Senior Account Executive at LogicGate, a Chicago-based SaaS company that creates flexible business process management software. He’s worked at a number of other companies, including six years in senior roles at LinkedIn.

Here’s what he told me:

“Parker Dewey is doing a great service for the market and for businesses to get access to this type of talent and this type of employment arrangement. It’s really important for students who do not otherwise have opportunities to get in front of these companies.

I’ve used them (micro-internships) a few times. In all cases, I was looking for more than just a one-and-done project. I was looking for somebody to work on a temporary, part-time basis, over an extended time period. And, it worked out that way.

Of course, one of the benefits is the ‘try before you buy’ situation, so I can get real work done without the commitment of a full internship. Each time I used this service, I was at hyper-growth startups that had no established formal internship program, at least not within the sales organization. There was no formal mechanism for me to hire an intern, so I got approval to do this (a micro-internship) on a project basis and managed it myself.

The first time I did it, we posted the project and I was looking for someone who would, after the end of the project, continue to work with me. And it worked out that way. We got a great candidate named Tarek. He completed the initial project and did a fantastic job. It evolved into a formal paid internship where I did get HR involved to formalize it. We were able to have him as a contract employee and work around his school schedule. He continued on for almost a year.

It was the best possible experience … Tarek was learning, he got paid, and of course, he got great experience and a reference from me … and he was absolutely able to leverage that very specific experience and my reference into landing himself a job out of college.”

Danny Hartman told me that he had about four or five students he had brought in as micro-interns, and that, “they all worked out very well.”

When I asked him what it cost to bring in a student under a micro-internship, he said that, “I typically paid (interns) $15 an hour, and an initial project would be about 30 hours.”

A modern way to reshape internships 

Here’s my take: Forbes says that Parker Dewey has helped more than 1,000 students complete micro-internships at companies such as Microsoft, CBRE, Dell, and Leo Burnett. Those are smart, successful companies. If micro-internships are good enough for them, well, they’re probably good enough for lots of other organizations, too.

I’m all for any and all internships that allow more students to get some well-needed professional experience that can jump-start their career. Micro-internships seem to be a new and very modern way of doing that.

The gig economy has gotten a bad rap in many corners. Even The New York Times questioned whether it was even reshaping the economy.

Well, guess what? The growing success of micro-internships shows that it absolutely is reshaping things in ways nobody even considered before.

As I said, I’m a big fan of college internships, because as a part-time college professor, I know how they can really be the big break a hard-working student needs to get their career going. And, micro-internships show how the gig economy can help with that.

Maybe it’s time for you and your organization to get on board and take a chance with one.

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