Virtual Internships: A New Solution for Hiring Millennials

Seven Steps for Agencies to Develop Virtual Intern Programs

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Lots of agencies use internships to identify and pre-qualify potential new hires. At CBD Marketing in Chicago, we took the classic role in a new direction with virtual internships based on a remote-access, work-from-anywhere model. It's a great solution for any small agency and very appealing for millennials, who enjoy flexibility, collaboration and new ways of working.

Here's how we did it and some ideas for how your agency might also leverage this concept.

For us, it was a serendipitous solution conceived with one of our partner organizations -- Kent State University in northern Ohio. Kent State has a great journalism and communications program. We decided to team up on a national research project and needed some smart talent to help with the research and content deliverables. Hence, the idea for a virtual internship was born.

Two KSU seniors -- both communications majors -- started in January. We assigned an account director who managed the students remotely. Each was paid for 15 hours per week. The account director provided clear direction and supervised scheduled status calls. In the early spring, toward the end of the internship, CBD invited both students to spend a few days at the agency to discuss final deliverables and provide feedback.

Talk about a win-win for both parties.

We heard great things from the university and our interns, who relished the idea of having real-world experience at a major-market agency with valuable work experience and connections they could highlight on their resumes. They loved the virtual nature of the relationship and were able to work the hours needed for the project into their school schedules, which varied daily.

Another positive outcome was the confidence-boosting nature of this arrangement. The students had to be proactive; they couldn't rely on strolling into a boss' office to get their marching orders every couple of hours. They knew they were working for an agency that could affect recommendations and future work, so they laddered up their own performance to match the opportunity.

The ultimate positive outcome was a job offer. One of the students was a perfect fit for an open account coordinator positon, and we now had several months experience with her work product, work ethic and had spent a few days with her at the end of the virtual internship program. Of course, the department head at Kent State loved this -- that a virtual relationship that started in January ended up in a real-world job after graduation: A new account coordinator sitting at a CBD desk in Chicago in June.

Would we do this again? Absolutely. We're already talking about our next virtual intern team and the project to get them started. You can do this, too. Here's what it takes:

1. A structured project with clear objectives lasting at least a school term that requires input, research or other data that is available via online sources.

2. Making contact with a department head or dean of a J-school, marketing program or other related academic discipline at a college or university -- which could be outside your geographic area but doesn't have to be. Your pitch is that a virtual internship provides a legitimate way to provide real-world experience and credentials for their students. Maybe it's a school already known to the agency -- an employee's alma mater or a school with a program that is well-known, where exposure for the agency would be beneficial. It was our experience that the KSU department head whom we worked with identified a group of students for the internship based on the deliverables that were needed.

3. An agency account manager able to lead the project and be the supervisor for the interns, keeping the project organized and the interns on task.

4. Scheduled reporting or status calls to track progress.

5. Everyday technology and tools -- a laptop, phone conferencing and internet access. If you are providing proprietary technology, logins and passwords for the students.

6. A well-defined, final deliverable prepared by the interns.

7. Money. Internships of this type should be paid.

You might think the lack of structure would hinder students from excelling, but we saw the opposite. The virtual internships were an opportunity to test the career-readiness of potential employees. The success was primarily driven by their individual work ethic and motivation. From a business perspective, CBD was able to identify talent early and outside its normal geographic boundaries -- individuals who became vetted candidates for entry-level positons.

We think it's a great model for small agencies to find job-ready talent, build relationships and connect with young professionals who can make a lasting impact on their organizations.