Microsoft’s micro-internship program delivers learning with a practical touch.
By Marta Chmielowicz
The transition from college student to working professional can be challenging for recent graduates. According to McGraw-Hill’s 2018 Future Workforce Survey report, only 41 percent of college students feel well-prepared for their future careers, and 51 percent desire more opportunities for internships and professional experiences.
And the evidence suggests that these opportunities are essential for future job prospects: A 2017 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Center for Career Development and Talent Acquisition found that nearly 91 percent of employers prefer that their candidates have work experience, and 65 percent prefer their candidates to have relevant work experience.
But when 40 percent of today’s internships are unpaid, according to NACE, these opportunities remain inaccessible to a large percentage of the student population. Often, they begin to act as gatekeepers in growing industries, shutting out rather than welcoming minority and low-income applicants.
Microsoft, in partnership with Parker Dewey, is one enterprise addressing the weaknesses of the traditional structure with a new approach: the micro-internship.
What are Micro-Internships?
Micro-internships are short-term, project-based, paid professional assignments that require between five and 40 hours of work and can take place at any point throughout the year, says Jeffrey Moss, founder and CEO of Parker Dewey, an organization that provides infrastructure to support the concept.
“Great internship programs tend to be a series of projects that take place over the summer. We decided to unbundle those because hiring managers have projects that emerge throughout the year that would be a perfect opportunity for a college student or recent graduate to provide some help; get their foot in the door; demonstrate skills; and explore companies, industries, and roles that they might not otherwise think about,” he explains.
Rather than replacing traditional internship programs, organizations are using micro-internships as a pathway to improve their hiring outcomes for recent college graduates seeking internships and full-time employment. By engaging students in a short-term context, Moss says that HR leaders are able to outsource entry-level tasks, saving themselves valuable time while evaluating and developing relationships with high-potential job candidates, building a more diverse talent pipeline, and increasing the visibility of their brand.
“While my initial need was support on a specific assignment, I quickly realized that this was a great way to identify high-potential talent,” says Adam Hecktman, Microsoft’s director of technology and civic innovation for Chicago. “And given Microsoft’s focus on workforce development, we recognize the importance and value of looking beyond degree and GPA to find candidates with the right skills and ability to learn. This helps us do that.”
So, how does it work?
Companies have the opportunity to post a job listing on an online platform, detailing the requirements of the position, a brief company description, start and end dates, estimated number of hours, salary, and desired skills.
According to Matthew Mottola, lead growth product manager for the Microsoft 365 freelance toolkit, the types of positions Microsoft posts on the platform vary from specialized skills like video editing to entry-level tasks including lead generation, social media planning and creation, and market research into competitors and customer sentiment.
Applications for individual projects take no more than five minutes and can feature a series of short-answer questions, such as:
- Why would you be a good fit for this position?
- How would you approach this project?
- Why are you interested in this industry?
Answers to these short questions are the number one driver for how students are selected, Moss says. Applicants are typically chosen based on the thoughtfulness and quality of their responses. In fact, Mottola says that his selection criteria focuses more on effort and attitude rather than technical skills.
Embracing Diversity in the Talent Pool
Because an organization’s financial investment in a micro-internship is so small, Moss says that companies tend to treat the assignment itself as an interview, giving chances to students who may otherwise be overlooked. This approach drives better results: Students’ success in a project does not necessarily correlate with their GPA, major, or the rank of their university.
“Last year, we identified 10 of the most common entry-level roles for recent college graduates, and then we unbundled those to understand specific competencies and skills that were required for success in those roles,” he says. “We then developed a series of micro-internships aligned to each skill that allow companies to really assess those competencies in a more effective way than evaluating an academic transcript, GPA, major, or interview. And what we found is that one’s ability to execute these projects or core skills has little or nothing to do with academic major.”
For instance, the initiative found that companies that use micro-internships in their marketing function offer opportunities to a variety of unrelated majors, because the skills required to succeed in a marketing role -crafting an argument, conducting research, and communicating effectively -are skills that are honed through a traditional liberal arts education.
“We’ve essentially lowered the stakes for companies. We’ve incented them to explore. They feel like they’re getting an early look at candidates who they might not otherwise find,” explains Moss.
And students benefit as well. Without the pressure of a performance review process, they are given the freedom to experiment. “This is a very cool feature because performance reviews are so subjective,” says Mottolo. “It enables room for growth. Because there are no ratings on the Parker Dewey platform, the students have psychological safety in that their effort and attitude weigh more than just one project.”