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Intern Affairs

More and more companies are hiring virtual interns. But is this a good thing for everyone involved?
June 1, 2003
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/61926

Wide-eyed college students come into your workplace hoping to gain experience. In return, you pay them peanuts--if anything--while you decide whether to offer them a permanent job. It's all part of that time-honored tradition-the internship.

But internships are changing. Some firms are taking advantage of technology to hire interns working from their dorm rooms via computer, doing everything from IT projects to communicating with customers. While it's hard to know how many virtual internships exist, they raise a lot of questions. Do students get what they need, and can employers evaluate performance if they never see the person?

A Fine Line
Nataly Kogan, 27, is the president of Natavi Guides, a New York City firm that publishes guidebooks for students. Kogan, who co-founded the company with partner Avi Spivack, 25, in January 2002, hires virtual interns to write stories and finds them by posting openings with career offices at more than 30 universities nationwide. When she posted an opening at New York's Columbia University last January, she received 100 resumes in an hour. Kogan gets cheap content, and the students get good writing experience--and the combination is working well for her business, she says.

Virtual internships can be a big benefit. You'll save on overhead by not having to furnish a computer and other equipment. Kogan estimates that hiring virtual interns saved her as much as $100,000 in overhead during her first year of business. And virtual internships hold tremendous potential in areas ranging from secretarial work and software to Web and IT projects, says Steven Rothberg, president of CollegeRecruiter.com, a career site based in Minneapolis.

But there are downsides to working with virtual interns. They can be hard to reach, and they can forget to report to work. Some don't treat the position like a real job because there's no boss looking over their shoulders. Kogan sends "an amazing amount" of reminders that deadlines are approaching.

If you decide virtual interning fits your business model, communicate clearly so students understand what's expected. You might also have students take a written quiz that reveals how much they know about the work they'd be doing and how they would handle certain situations. Be aware of potential legal land mines, too. Federal wage and hour laws require that 1) training must benefit the trainee, 2) trainees do not displace other employees and will "work under close observation," and 3) the employer "derives no immediate advantage" from the trainee's activities. It remains to be seen how these rules apply to virtual interns.

You'll also need to determine whether to classify this intern as an employee or an independent contractor, says Jim Craig, a labor and employment partner in the Tampa, Florida, office of Ford & Harrison LLP. "You need to think about whether there's an employment relationship," he says. Consult an attorney before hiring interns to work remotely.

A Virtual Certainty?
How do you manage someone whose only contact with you is online? In a few cases, letting a virtual intern proceed with little supervision can work just fine if you're not asking them to do anything they haven't done before, Rothberg says. For example, a virtual intern who's been hacking code since he was 8 can write software from his dorm room.

Most virtual interns will need more hand-holding. Start a system of daily or weekly progress reports where virtual interns can talk about projects and any problems they're having. Also, designate a person in the company who coordinates projects with interns and communicates with them frequently. It's important for interns to know there's someone in the company they can contact when they have questions.

If possible, invite virtual interns to come in for a few hours each week or month so they're exposed to your company culture. A sense of community and contribution is valuable to students, says Joan Baum, director of the Office of Professional Development at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. "And [these] don't exist in a virtual internship, which isolates the person."

Will virtual interning become the norm, or will it fade? No one knows. But if employers encourage virtual interning, it could change the workplace. A generation weaned on virtual internships will expect to be judged by the work they complete instead of the number of hours they work. In other words, they'll expect to be treated like free agents. Says Rothberg, "[Employers] have to be prepared for a different mind-set."