Virtual internships: are they pointless?

Remote work placements can make internships cheaper, but surely can't beat face to face experience.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 10 May 2018

There are some things in life that just split opinion. Battered Mars bars, Arsène Wenger and internships - well, unpaid ones at least.

The idea of a newly graduated post-teen doing unpaid work for a multi-million pound organisation is not always the easiest of ideas to swallow, but it's a difficult balance.

Clearly internships are an important way for graduates to gain the necessary skills, contacts and experience to land the big roles, but arguably if companies had to pay interns, then ultimately there will be fewer internships and therefore less opportunity to go round. 

It's a thorny problem. However one company may have found a solution.

Virtual Internship Partners (VIP) is a start-up specialising in matching virtual interns to companies around the globe. It places remote candidates in full or part time positions with businesses across 14 different industries, monitoring their progress and providing detailed feedback.

So it's an unpaid internship but without the face to face experience?

Essentially yes. In fact, students have to pay around £650 for the privilege. 


'We realise that that is a bit controversial,' says co-founder Ed Holroyd Pearce. 'So what we expect to happen very quickly is for universities, or hopefully even government entities to subsidise this.'

He is keen to emphasis the cost benefit of doing a virtual internship compared to a physical one. 

A 2018 report released by The Sutton Trust - a foundation working to improve social mobility -  estimated that the average monthly cost of an internship is £1,019 in London and £827 in Manchester and a major part of this cost usually revolves around accommodation, food and travel.

'The cost savings and the logistical savings are huge,' says Holroyd Pearce. 'Interns don't have to go and rent an apartment, they don't have to buy a suit - they can do the remote placement and be really judged on their skills alone.'

VIP's CEO Luke Peake stresses that the real benefit of vinterning - as MT have decided to call it - is the flexibility it offers the candidate, by allowing them to fit remote work placements around their studies, part-time job or family life.

The usually shorter term nature of the projects means that candidates can get a more varied number of experiences, and also complete a greater number of virtual placements in the time it would take them to complete one physical placement.

VIP also say that virtual internships can help to create a more diverse workplace.

‘We're also really excited about this opening up opportunities for candidates who might be disabled or have mobility issues, or also for candidates that may be from a background that maybe wouldn't be very happy with them going down to London to do a two month internship,' says Holroyd Pearce. 'This could be a really a good way for them to build their skills.'

But the benefits don't stop with the candidate.

The remote nature of the work means employers can be more focused on the intern and their technical abilities - rather than their ability to make the tea. It also removes the logistical conundrum of having to provide a desk space or require a staff member to shadow the intern every second of the placement - something which can be a problem for growing startups or SMEs in particular. 

Can it ever replace genuine face-to-face experience?

Skype, Trello and Slack are good and all, but what about the valuable networking opportunities, face to face interaction and aura of being immersed in a bustling company culture? Good tech certainly can’t make up for that.

Holroyd Pearce says that virtual experiences allow interns to display and develop a different set of skills like self-discipline, organisation and independent working, that they wouldn’t necessarily get to display in a traditional setting.

'We see the value as really in addition or actually different to doing a regular in person internship. More and more job roles are becoming available where there is a remote aspect and that does require a certain skill set.’

So should every company offer virtual internships?

Clearly virtual roles will be more suitable to different industries. If you want to train physiotherapists, for example, remote internships probably won't help.

But given that 63% of employees already work flexibly in some way according to figures gathered by Timewise, a figure that is only expected to rise, then remotely equipping graduates with skills can surely only be a good thing - so long as it doesn't replace face to face interaction. 

'We would encourage students to try and get both, there is a place for learning how to interact in person with your colleagues, what an office job feels like and what skills you need,' says Holroyd Pearce.

'Almost totally independently there is a whole different skill set you can learn working virtually.'

Image credits: Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock


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