Microinternships Offer New College-to-Career Path

Short-term gigs connect employers with talent

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer April 19, 2019
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​Professional short-term projects serve as mutual auditions for employers seeking talent and college students interested in certain roles or industries—all outside of the formal, semester-long internship program structure.

Dubbed microinternships, paid, professional gig work for college students can improve entry-level hiring, enhance campus recruiting, boost applicant diversity and provide students and recent grads more exposure to a variety of professional jobs and tasks.

"What if we applied the acceptance of the gig model and used it to provide immediate value to companies by enabling work to get done, but also provide earlier access to college students by working together on short-term projects?" asked Jeffrey Moss, the founder and CEO of Parker Dewey, a Chicago-based education technology company and pioneer of microinternships.   

One Freelancer Goes Full-Circle

Matthew Mottola began helping friends and local business owners with their business challenges—providing market research, business planning, financial projections—to make some extra money during college, and only later realized how much he thrived on freelance work.

As an accounting and finance major, his goal was to intern at one of the Big Four firms. "That was the dream," he said. But when he landed at one of those firms, he realized the traditional work model wasn't for him. "It totally stunk—I felt like a number, the work itself wasn't stimulating, and most importantly I didn't see the impact of my results," he said. "I thought back to when I was doing gigs and how happy it made me. It was very challenging. I definitely worked more hours and took on more responsibility than I did at the Big Four. But I had choice over my work, which led to solving problems I was passionate about, with clients I would run through a wall for, and my impact was measurable through the business value and my client's direct feedback."

Mottola went on to try to build a freelance platform himself but lacked the technical skills to bring his idea forward. Then Microsoft hired him to help make it easier to use freelancers at the enterprise level. "There are a lot of freelancers that love freelancing, and there are a lot of enterprise employers that need freelance talent," he said. "But the infrastructure to connect the two is lacking at enterprise scale."

This past year, he led a team of Microsoft and Upwork Enterprise collaborators to develop the Microsoft 365 Freelance Toolkit for companies to launch their own freelance programs. "The toolkit is a curation of Microsoft tools, with templates and best practices to solve for the main friction points of enterprise freelance programs, including: internal communications and awareness; team-wide collaboration; data analytics; and workflow automation," he said. "By leveraging their existing Office 365 Enterprise, or Microsoft 365 Enterprise subscription, the toolkit enables every organization to embrace on-demand freelance talent at enterprise scale."

Microinternships tend to require five to 40 hours of work on projects that tend to be due a few days to a few weeks out. Employers post a job on the site, including compensation, and students bid for the jobs. Moss explained that eliminating the friction between employers and freelancers was one of his primary aims. Instead of structuring Parker Dewey as a freelance marketplace where organizations retain job seekers as independent contractors, the company acts as a consulting firm.

"When a company works with a student through Parker Dewey, they are actually retaining Parker Dewey to provide consulting services," Moss said. "It makes it much easier on HR, not having to deal with 1099s and contract worker regulations and contingent liability. There's also no conversion temp-to-perm fee for hiring the freelancers if they like them."

Parker Dewey instead takes a cut of the student's payment for the work. "Every project is paid fairly," Moss said. "Our business development team evaluates employers' posts to make sure the gigs are fairly paid."

Moss said he created the company five years ago to address the challenges of the college-to-career transition, specifically that "students without the right academic pedigree weren't being considered for jobs … students with opportunities had little chance to explore outside their major" and employers would go through a drawn-out hiring process only to discover that their new hires weren't a good fit. 

"A series of microinternships can be a great way for students to experience professional entry-level work and different jobs in different industries," he said.

Parker Dewey launched in 2016 and employers across sectors and company size have signed up. "We work with employers in technology, education, financial services, manufacturing, health care, and place people for jobs in sales, marketing, HR, you name it," he said.

[SHRM members-only platform: SHRM Connect]

Backed by Schools

Parker Dewey partners with 150 colleges and universities across the U.S. Some of the schools allow students to earn academic credits after completing a certain number of microinternships, while most just see the benefit in their students using the site to test out jobs, get their foot in the door with an employer and make some extra money.

"Microinternships allow our students to dabble, to try different things in a low-risk way," said Lori Sparger, the chief operating and innovation officer for the College of Liberal Arts at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.  

Students have told Sparger that they are unsure about applying for full-length internships because of the required time commitment. "But spending 20 to 40 hours on a project doing marketing, data entry, website work, to start to get a sense of what is interesting to them and what isn't helps them get real-world experience and define what they want to pursue," she said. "It can help them decide whether or not they want to apply for a full-term internship [in that field] later."

Sparger said that the experience for her students as been very positive. "They feel good getting paid and putting a real work project on their resumes. The biggest disappointment we've had is that some students have applied for a microinternship and not been accepted, because there's starting to be more interest and competition for those opportunities," she said.

Typically, the jobs can be done remotely, which is another plus. "Students in any corner in the country—including those who don't have the same opportunities to connect with name-brand firms in the large metro areas—have the same access to these types of projects," Sparger said.

She also likes the microinternship model because it allows employers to see her students for their skills and beyond their majors or resumes. "A major is not a career," she said. "I have liberal arts students with the kinds of skills employers say they are interested in—communication, problem-solving, creative thinking—who don't always have self-evident career paths, and [microinternships] can be a way to get beyond hiring manager bias against a student's academic major."

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