Micro-internships: Just a gig or a promising gateway?

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Sep 17, 2019

This month the micro-internship marketplace Parker Dewey launched a new initiative, Gigs for Good, aimed at helping college students from underrepresented populations tap into the platform’s internship opportunities. For many concerned about access to high quality work, ‘gig’ and ‘good’ in the same breath may sound like an oxymoron. But more flexible opportunities for accruing meaningful work experience during college could mark an important stride in addressing stubborn opportunity gaps. 

Work experience during college has long been a gateway to high-quality jobs. But troubling data suggests that although students from high- and low-income backgrounds in fact work a similar number of hours during college, the nature of that work diverges sharply. A report published last year from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce summarized the phenomenon:

“Low-income students are more likely to work in food service, sales, and administrative support fields than higher-income students. Work experience in these jobs does provide basic employability skills like conscientiousness and teamwork but does not provide the deeper technical and general skills that foreshadow good entry-level career jobs. … Higher-income students are more likely to have jobs directly related to their field of study or career goals, working at internships and apprenticeships to gain firm-specific skills that put them at a relative advantage when they seek jobs as graduating seniors.”

These disparate work experiences beget disparate advantages when it comes to the skills students can tout to prospective employers. They also yield inequities beyond their resumes: their access to professional connections. Put differently, high-quality internships spell higher-leverage networks into industry. In a labor market where an estimated half of jobs come through personal connections, those networks are not just a nice-to-have. They, like internships, are gateways unto themselves.

One solution to bridging experience and network gaps? Build and invest in more high-quality internships and implement programming to ensure that students furthest from opportunity are aware of these opportunities. 

A different solution? Disrupt the traditional internship in a manner that shrinks the duration and scope of work, lowers opportunity costs, and scales access to diverse experiences and industry connections by tapping a wider array of employers. Enter the concept of a micro-internship, which Parker Dewey and others see as a promising complement to otherwise time- and cost-intensive internship models. 

Expanding access, scale, and social credentials

By many accounts, Parker Dewey’s micro-internship approach has Disruption Theory in its favor: it’s suited to expanding access, at scale, to valuable work experience and critical social credentials far more affordably than traditional internships can.

Access. Models like Parker Dewey can tackle chronic access gaps on two fronts: lessening the search costs of time and effort college students spend looking for work experiences, and shrinking the opportunity costs of actually engaging in them. In cutting search costs, Parker Dewey takes the first step in brokering the connections on students’ behalf by recruiting employers onto the online platform to post gigs they’re seeking to match with college talent. The two-sided platform effectively internalizes away the distance between education and work in ways that traditional education institutions, and even well-intentioned career offices, were never designed to do. In turn, the platform can expand access to a bevy of opportunities that students could otherwise only gain through informal networks that they either had the good fortune to inherit or hustled to create themselves. The model also expands access by lessening the time commitment involved in a typical internship or apprenticeship. This, in turn, multiplies the number of work experiences that employers can offer and the number of experiences to which students can dedicate their scarce time. Students may still end up engaging in longer, multi-month internships–but on the front end more experiences can allow for greater exploration and exposure at a fraction of the time commitment.

Scale. A model centered on smaller-dosage projects already goes a long way in bringing more students and employers to the table. But it’s the manner in which Parker Dewey leverages a technological enabler to afford scale that renders its approach potentially disruptive. Parker Dewey’s online approach to micro-internships—through its online marketplace and platform that allows students to engage in anytime, anywhere work projects that can be completed online—busts through the limitations that local or regional economies pose to scaling internships that require in-person attendance. Its technology backbone also means that the marginal costs of creating, promoting, and sustaining access to work experiences across students and employers alike can go down as the marketplace grows. 

Social credentialing. “Micro”, or less time, need not mean less payoff. In fact, micro-internships could be a boon to diversifying students’ networks and experiences in ways that traditional internships don’t. This is a numbers game: if students work a fixed number of hours during their college careers, through a series of gigs, those hours can be broken up into several experiences rather than just a select few. A plentiful portfolio of gig work could mean a broader set of industry professionals that are familiar with students and their abilities. This could eventually outcompete the narrower networks that come with a smaller handful of longer-running internships. In social capital terms, this is especially exciting because it’s not just what you know and who you know that drives opportunity but who knows what you know (to borrow a phrase from Eliot Washor, co-founder of Big Picture’s Learning).  

Redefining quality to pave pathways

To understand the intent behind Parker Dewey’s new effort, the company’s tagline is telling: “Gigs as a pathway, not a destination.” The model is intended to be a stepping stone to new skills and experiences, while also building a try-before-you-buy onramp for students and employers alike, before committing to a longer internship or a full-time job.

But what will ensure that micro-internships don’t eventually give way to a two-track system—of affluent students continuing to engage disproportionately in long-term, high-quality internships and low-income students banished to shorter, lesser-quality gigs? 

Disruptive innovations often compete on new dimensions of performance. In the case of micro-internships, performance could be measured in the return on investment (ROI) to students and employers alike, versus performance measured in hours or months logged in traditional internships. Micro-internships could shore up better ‘pathways’ by multiplying the amount of experience, feedback, and networking opportunities that can propel students along their career paths, at a fraction of the time investment required for traditional internships. They could also ensure that students find longer-term internships that are the best fit—or yield the greatest ROI based on their career goals—by letting them try out various options before committing significant time.

To track progress on this ROI dimension, new measures are needed to ensure that employers aren’t using Parker Dewey, or micro-internships in general, for cheap labor—and nothing more. Such measures could include the rate at which gigs convert into full-time job offers, how often the relationships formed between students and employers in the course of the work outlast the work itself, or qualitative data on how the experience shaped or refined a students’ interests and career pursuits on and off campus.

Integrating supports to drive quality

These measures could help ensure that micro-internships are indeed unlocking better long-term outcomes. In the nearer term, however, perhaps the greatest potential to ensuring that gigs are good for students lies in pairing micro-internships with innovative student support models. 

Promising approaches to rethinking student supports for first-generation and low-income students—like online coaching app Beyond 12 or on-campus mentorship model Braven—could prove powerful complements to wrap around and leverage these ‘micro’ work opportunities in combination with full-fledged internships as well. Such support models could help students navigate what are likely to remain real trade-offs between micro and longer-term internships; a series of gig projects could inadvertently dilute a student’s chances at a job if there’s a single firm or department within a firm where he’s hoping to work that uses summer internships as it’s core on-ramp to full-time offers. And lest we forget, most gig projects will just reflect tasks that employers need done—they won’t necessarily be ‘scaffolded’ to explicitly teach skills or help students to succeed on their own career paths. Additional supports could also prove critical in helping students to effectively choose which types of employer projects best fit their skill levels and to successfully execute on challenging projects along the way.

Micro-internships are no cure-all. But gig work has immense potential to efficiently diversify and expand networks and experiences, especially for low-income students, in a manner that buffers against the unknowns of a fast-changing labor market and expands students’ longer-run options. Combining promising ingredients for access and scale with the right measures and supports could mean that gigs aren’t just good but great levers for expanding pathways to opportunity.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.