Internships can be as much of an obstacle course as a stepping stone into a career, but a new approach is helping break down the barriers: virtual internships.
When more and more companies use internships as a stage of the recruitment process, difficulties in getting a suitable opening are often one of the biggest barriers to entering a chosen career.
Whether you live too far away to make it a realistic option, or you don't have the funds or the time to intern for little or no pay, these barriers are often enough to stop otherwise well-qualified candidates from getting onto the first rung of the career ladder.
But virtual internships could be the answer, opening up opportunities for graduates to get onto the first rung of the ladder.
Instead of having to relocate or fund an expensive commute, virtual internships offer the chance to get a taste for a particular career - and to demonstrate your credentials to a prospective employer - all without leaving your home.
And while this approach received an unexpected boost during pandemic lockdowns, when remote working suddenly became a reality for millions, its roots lie in the pre-Covid era.
"There have always been a lot of restrictions on internships," says Daniel Nivern, co-founder and CEO of Virtual Internships. "You were restricted by your location because internships often took place in the summer, and there were costs involved in moving or having to travel.
"In one swoop we reduce all of those barriers. A brilliant student in Vietnam can now get access to a company in Silicon Valley."
Nivern founded Virtual Internships along with Ed Holroyd Pearce in 2018, aiming to build on their experience in arranging in-person internships.
"We thought it would be amazing if we could help students around the world get an internship with any company, and they could do it alongside their studies and without having to leave home," Nivern says.
"We also thought this would be mirroring the future of work. There were already signs of a shift to remote working, even pre-pandemic and we were already seeing the technology starting to evolve."
Growth was steady in the first two years, with Nivern admitting that many companies and universities alike finding it difficult to envisage a future where remote working had any more than a peripheral role.
"There was definitely an initial reticence," he says. "Some could see the merits of flexibility, but a lot of universities questioned what work could be done remotely and most companies were still used to having someone at a desk."
Then came Covid-19, and a seismic change in attitudes towards remote working. Now pretty much every company in every sector is working remotely.
And alongside this has been a corresponding shift in attitudes towards internships, with Virtual Internships seeing a rapid increase in demand.
It has also opened up opportunities: graduates based anywhere in the world can now intern at companies based anywhere in the world. "We have widened the market massively," Nivern says.
In the year before Covid-19 hit, the company placed around 100 graduates. That shot up to 2,000 in the first year of the pandemic and 5,000 last year. This year they are on course to place 15,000 interns.
The number of companies involved has followed a similar trajectory, with around 12,000 worldwide now offering a remote internship through the scheme.
This has brought London-based Virtual Internships a turnover of £3.2m ($3.8m) last year and predicted revenues of £9m ($10.6m).
Participants so far include U.K. telecoms giant BT, French retailing multinational Carrefour, the German Stock Exchange and the Asian Development Bank.
Around 20% of those undertaking placements are from the U.K., with another 20% from North America, 24% from the rest of Europe and around 40% from the Middle East.
Just over a third - 36% - of those placed through Virtual Internships are subsequently offered a job with the company, with most of these positions also remote.
And with the speed of the change in work patterns, the company, which now has around 130 employees, has ambitious growth targets, aiming for revenues of $100m in five years and $1bn in 10 years, when they aim to be placing more than a million interns a year.
Samera Khan is one of its alumni, the Birmingham University graduate spending a month last year completing a virtual internship with Miami-based international education platform Catalyst GEM.
Even before Covid, Khan would have faced numerous barriers to interning, not least given that many U.K.-based posts would have required a temporary and expensive relocation to London.
But a remote placement meant the 22-year-old could get experience in social media strategy from the comfort of her own home.
"It was so important to find out what you like and don't like before committing yourself, and a virtual internship really lets you see that," she says.
"I learned so much from the experience. I really enjoyed it and it helped me decide what I really wanted to do."
A major difference between a virtual internship and the in-person variety is the lack of social contact. Khan recognizes this as a potential drawback, although regular video calls helped mitigate the impact.
"I never felt isolated - there were webinars and I had regular coaching, but it's true that you don't have the same level of social interaction," says Khan, who ended up getting a part-time position at Catalyst GEM.
Nivern acknowledges that the lack of social interaction could be an issue for some people, particularly at the start of their career when it's the impromptu conversations that can be so important in helping new employees learn the ropes.
But he counters that technology is evolving all the time and the tools to help form relationships are only going to get better. And those with experience of using these tools will give themselves an advantage.
A purpose-built platform also helps track the intern's progress, and companies offering placements have to give interns projects to perform.
"Yes, you can build relationships with people remotely. The technology is there," he says. "More importantly, the future of work is remote, and you are getting ahead of the game by building those skills."
Certainly, the signs are that remote working is here to stay. The challenge will be to make it work for those at the start of their careers.
This article was written by Nick Morrison from Forbes and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.