Internships Go Virtual, Allowing for Flex Time
By AMY HOAK
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
From The Wall Street Journal Online
Last year, Matthew Hanzelka did an internship with a financial planner while finishing coursework at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
But his wasn’t a traditional type of internship, complete with a workstation in an otherwise unused corner of an office. All the work — including helping to develop a monthly email newsletter — was done from home. And Mr. Hanzelka mainly communicated with his boss through email and telephone.
Home Sweet Home (Office)
Students are increasingly taking on internships that don’t require regular appearances in the office. These virtual arrangements play into some of the noted strengths of this generation of college students: technological know-how, an entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility, says Peg Hendershot, director of Career Vision, a career consulting service based in Glen Ellyn, Ill.
What’s more, working alone prepares students for the workplace of the future, which Ms. Hendershot predicts will incorporate more off-site, project-based employees. An increasing number of workers already telecommute, she says.
The trend also parallels the rise in distance learning through online college classes, she adds. And like online coursework, Ms. Hendershot says, there’s a tendency for greater accountability in off-site internships — where meeting goals is often more important than logging hours.
There’s greater flexibility, too. An intern, for instance, might work in his or her dorm room into the wee hours on internship tasks. That’s often an attractive perk for people taking a full load of courses or working another job. A virtual internship also can give students a taste of what it’s like to manage projects and nurture business relationships when they’re not confined by cubicles.
But some critics say the absence of in-person office interaction makes virtual internships a less-desirable option when gaining experience in the workplace. The distance from the office, they argue, not only stunts the development of relationships within the company, it also impedes an opportunity to learn from impromptu discussions with supervisors.
"A virtual internship is an internship of desperation," says Steven Rothberg, president and founder of CollegeRecruiter.com, a career Web site for college students and recent graduates. It’s often not a student’s first choice, he says.
The upside, Mr. Rothberg adds, is that the experience may help students prove they’re ready for a more traditional internship.
Mr. Hanzelka, 24, who now works at the 401(k) Co., a unit of Charles Schwab in Austin, Texas, has completed internships of both varieties and says he "enjoyed the virtual internship more because of the freedom and flexibility."
The virtual internship also worked "marvelously well" for the employer, says John Gay, the sole practitioner of Frisco Financial Planning in Frisco, Texas, for whom Mr. Hanzelka worked last year. Mr. Gay says he couldn’t afford the cost and didn’t have the office space for a full-time employee, yet he could manage paying an off-site, part-time employee about $10 an hour.
What to Consider
Before accepting a virtual internship, students should consider the following:
It’s wise to outline the goals of a virtual internship before accepting it, Ms. Hendershot says. And if not being in the office will be a detriment to meeting those goals, perhaps a virtual internship isn’t a good fit.
Some jobs are more suited to telecommuting than others. A job that requires collaboration with several members of a team, for instance, might not work as well when removed from an office setting, Mr. Rothberg says.
People who take on virtual internships should be motivated to work alone. The experience also can help students decide whether they would like working on their own full time.
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–June 14, 2007