Twenty-year-old Jessica Fitzpatrick from Kent is in her third-year of university. Like most students with a part-time job, balancing all of her commitments can be challenging.
So she chose a virtual internship, with the global law firm Linklaters, to fit around her studies.
It’s an online service that gives a look inside the work of a lawyer, through a series of tasks, including working on a deal and creating a presentation.
“Although I’m not in the office, there are videos of real partners working there who give me my assignments and deadlines.
“They’re talking to me from behind a desk so it has that personal, intimate element, as if I’m literally sat in front of them.”
Answers are provided for the remote interns to mark their own work, so there’s no direct interaction between the company and the intern.
When Linklaters launched the scheme over the summer, a thousand students signed up in 24 hours.
“I love having the freedom to work through all the web-based activities at my convenience,” Jessica says.
“Having it on my mobile and laptop means I can do it anywhere – even in pyjamas if I want.”
Other companies including KPMG and Citibank, use the same virtual internship service, operated by InsideSherpa.
Every year, approximately 70,000 real world internships are undertaken in the UK according to social mobility charity The Sutton Trust.
A substantial amount of these are unpaid. This puts a strain on many people who are unable to afford the cost of travel, appropriate office clothes, or rent in big cities.
Not having the right contacts can also be an obstacle when it comes to landing a work placement.
“Digital internships could help to break down some of these geographical, social and financial barriers,” says James Turner, the chief executive of The Sutton Trust.
However, he identifies a potential problem.
“We don’t want to see a two-tier system formed, where physical internships are the ones with real currency and continue to be accessed by those who are better off and have connections.
“Then there could be this second set of virtual internship experiences which may not be quite as good at developing employability skills, and may not open as many doors further down the line.”
There are obvious attractions for companies – they don’t need to clear desk space for the interns, or pay for travel and food.
It also allows them to cast a wider net for future employees.
“It is essentially a digital tool that enables us to access a wider pool of talent across the country, which can be challenging for us, as a London-based firm,” said Alison Wilson, a graduate recruitment partner at Linklaters.
“We aren’t trying to replace real, physical internships which give people the chance to shine and find out if we’re right for them or vice versa,” she said.
However, if not well managed a virtual internship can turn into a grind.
For the most part Josephine Adeti, who lives in Nairobi, found her experience as a virtual intern rewarding.
She came across an opportunity on Facebook, that involved working for an online magazine located thousands of miles away in Dubai, and says she “enjoyed collaborating with a team of writers based all over the world”.
Assignments were sent via email, group work was conducted on WhatsApp, and video calls and Skype meetings were held regularly.
But at points during the seven months with the company, Josephine felt a bit lonely and fed up.
“Sometimes I got bored with technology, and just wanted to shut down, but it was difficult because I felt I’d miss out on a lot.
“If you’re an extrovert, physical internships would do you more good.”
Josephine also said that being a virtual intern requires discipline, as there are distractions at home and no one nearby to keep an eye on you.
Fern Bowkett would have loved the opportunity to do a virtual internship.
The 25-year-old has life-threatening asthma and had to leave London because of the high pollution levels.
She now lives in the countryside, where there are fewer opportunities for young people.
“As long as there is support from both sides of the computer screen it is a great idea, and I can’t understand why more companies haven’t thought of this before.”
“Working from home has certainly benefited me. When I’m in my office space I can look out of my window and see the greenery and nature. I’m breathing in the fresh air, and know I’m not in danger when I walk out the door.”
Learning how to work away form an office is likely to be useful to young people as remote and flexible working is becoming more common.
According to the Trades Union Congress, there are 373,000 more employees working from home in the UK than 10 years ago, a 27% increase.
Nevertheless, for many job seekers, face-to-face interaction with an employer – even if that means doing their photocopying or fetching coffee – could still be the key to unlocking that dream job.
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