• The London Financial

Virtual Internships: A Silver Lining?

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

If you have been on LinkedIn lately, you might have noticed the recent surge in posts announcing the completion of virtual internships. Virtual internships have received great fanfare since they cropped up in the middle of lockdown. Not only do they provide an alternative for students who have had their internships and graduate schemes cancelled, virtual internships have the potential to democratise professional work experience for students from all backgrounds. One of the leading players in this field is Bright Network, with their Internship Experience UK (IEUK) scheme. We spoke to Ben Triggs, Bright Network’s Marketing Director, to discover how the project has changed the landscape of internships in an online-first world.

Google searches for ‘virtual internships’ have ramped up significantly in June 2020.

Hi Ben, it looks that Bright Network has gained a lot of steam recently with the Internship Experience UK. Could you tell us what Internship Experience UK is about?

Bright Network’s Internship Experience UK is an online internship-like opportunity for all students. Students take on a 3-day experience, choosing from 6 different sectors, ranging from investment banking, to technology, to business, operations and marketing. Students can learn from and engage in sessions with industry experts and employers, try out a work sample in each sector, and get their work peer-reviewed by other participants. Students have come out of it with a stronger network of like-minded peers, which is really exciting.

We try to provide opportunities and skills for all, regardless of background and sector focus. The most important bit is helping students build their confidence and network. We want students to feel that this experience is something that they would be proud of putting on their CVs!

How did Bright Network come up with the idea for Internship Experience UK? What drove you to create this project?

After our CEO, James Uffindell, talked to various people in the market, including recruiters and university career services, we identified the real need to respond to current challenges in the job market due to COVID-19 with something big. There is the physical challenge of internships and graduate roles being cancelled, and also the wider challenge wherein some companies’ hiring plans for graduates are up in the air in the near future. Over the course of 10 weeks, we developed this project to enable students to gain work experience free of charge.

Students without existing connections in the industry could be disproportionately affected by a possible decline in the job market, and so we wanted to offer opportunity to all at this time. We’re very happy to say that many people have been behind what Bright Network’s doing: student ambassadors, employers, university career services, and different trade bodies all see the need for the young generation to be given the opportunity to flourish professionally.

That’s brilliant! A key aspect of excelling in job applications is to demonstrate the skills one has picked up from previous experiences. What skills have students been able to hone in the virtual experiences?

Certainly, e-learning courses like ours would not be the same as 10-week long internships. However, some of the transferable skills that can be developed are problem-solving, analytical skills, proactivity, and resilience. When applying for jobs, it is likely that employers ask students how they have demonstrated resilience and proactivity in their interviews. They might even ask students what they’ve done during the lockdown! Those who have developed a broad range of skills will stand out for employers, so hopefully students can take away these skills from Internship Experience UK.

I agree, that sounds really crucial. What kind of activities does Internship Experience UK offer to facilitate students’ learning?

One thing I would say is that we provide students with access to fantastic speakers. Students can listen to industry-specific presentations from companies like Google, Goldman Sachs – the CEO of Macquarie Group came along and delivered an introductory session!

I’d also highlight the collaboration and sample work experience participants do. Bright Network was at the forefront of developing this new kind of e-learning, taking online learning to the next level. Some have said the work samples are challenging, which is good, as it indicates to students the level they need to be at to work in these roles. I would say that it isn’t about doing the perfect piece of work. It is more about giving it a go, learning to collaborate with others online, and coming up with something which they had learnt from scratch just a day ago.

I think this would benefit students greatly in their work after graduating. There is always a learning curve when starting out a new role, but I hope that doing the work sample gives them a taste of that dynamic, allowing them to hit the ground running.

Do you think virtual experiences will become more common in a post COVID-19 world?

The short answer: yes. The world is realising that we’re better at working remotely than we have ever expected. Companies are speeding up their digitalisation roadmap, with 5-year plans being implemented in the span of 3 months. Virtual experiences will definitely become more common, whether they be in the form of a full internship offered by companies or opportunities like ours. A lot of companies’ operations may be mostly virtual, with a reduced office size, so some companies must be thinking about virtual internships too.

We also see that there is positive uptake for virtual experiences and events. 63% of students in our survey said that they enjoyed virtual events just as much as, or more than, in-person events. Students living far away from big cities no longer have to travel long distances to attend events. Employers also spend less energy, time, and resources on travel.

That makes sense. With that being said, what challenges do virtual internships have to overcome to be on par with in-person internships?

There still is the sense that we need to meet people face-to-face and work with them in person, which is the biggest challenge for virtual internships. Time will tell whether firms that make hiring decisions after internships will be as keen to hire based on virtual experiences.

Doing a week-long online internship with a firm would definitely provide students with a different kind of experience compared to something which is 10 weeks long in the office. The work they do would most likely be simulations rather than real work and they may not be able to build the relationships across the business.

It may take time for companies across all industries to offer longer virtual internships, but it’s something which Bright Network is supporting employers with. For now though, what we can do is to make sure that virtual experiences like Internship Experience UK build participants’ skills, particularly interpersonal skills which they would obtain with in-person work experience.

With such positive reception for IEUK, what’s next for Bright Network?

We’re currently still in the middle of running this programme, so we are focusing on providing participants with the best experience – we have 25,000 people joining us during the final week. We might discover aspects in the next two sectors, consulting and law, which we had not seen before in earlier sessions, and reflect and learn from them.

We also will launch our on-demand internships which students can complete within two weeks. This would benefit those who might have had to work or care for their families when the programmes ran.

We built Internship Experience UK in 10 weeks. It’s very exciting to see what we can do in 6 months to a year’s time. People around us are constantly contributing and suggesting ideas, which is great. Over the next year, we want to become a comprehensive and free e-learning platform, which includes developing the Bright Network Academy further. This is where students can obtain application advice, develop skills for interviews, and become more commercially aware.

Those are incredible plans. As a final note, what are your three top tips for students entering this changing job market?

First of all, this is the time to be proactive. Reach out to people, be personal, and squeeze as much of any opportunity as you can. Put your all into whatever you’re doing.

Firms will also understand that now is a difficult time. Think about the long game – if you have a tough first mile, the marathon is not over. Think about your career as a marathon, not a sprint. Having a gap in your CV is not a problem, as long as you are proactive and go for opportunities. Don’t let the worries get the better of you, though. You will be okay.

Lastly, explore different career paths. Broaden your horizons by going to different sectoral events, for instance. You might find interesting things that you had not previously considered. Remember, it is possible to change your career a few years into it.

By Alicia Lukman, PPE Student at University of Warwick and President of Warwick Philosophy Society

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