Reporting on the connections between education and work

Micro ‘sprinternships’ show results for female students in tech

Work experiences as short as three weeks increased women’s odds of landing summer internships in tech by more than 10 fold
UIC computer science students (L-R) Emily Carroso, Ifra Rabbani, Megan Herrera, and Daniela Rodriguez work during their “sprinternship” at the U.S. Soccer Federation. (Jim Young/UIC Engineering)

A wraparound program of microinternships for female students in college tech tracks is showing success in getting students the experience they need to secure paid summer internships—a win for students trying to break into a male-dominated field and for the participating companies looking to diversify their workforce. 

A report released by Break Through Tech this week shows that the organization’s “Sprinternships”—three-week work experiences where a cohort of students immerse themselves fulltime in a company and tackle a “challenge project” as a team—resulted in a significant majority of participants receiving offers for paid summer internships.

In five years, Break Through Tech facilitated 1,246 of those microinternships at more than 125 companies. 

  • Of those, 59 percent of participants received an offer of employment from their host companies or elsewhere.
  • In the current year, 80 percent of participating students received an internship offer from their host company. 

For Judith Spitz, founder of Break Through Tech, those results show the intervention is working. “If you just find a way for companies to get exposed to these students, the students can demonstrate their capability and the companies want them,” she says.  

Paid summer internships are a critical component for getting hired for a fulltime job after graduation. When Break Through Tech first started, a tiny portion of its students—just 4 percent —were offered internships they had applied for. Put simply, these women, who often didn’t come from privileged backgrounds, didn’t have the kind of experiences they needed in order to get an internship that would give them work experience. 

Break Through Tech works with female and nonbinary students at large, diverse public universities—including Florida International University, George Mason University, and the University of Maryland, College Park—with robust computer science programs and a high population of students who come from lower incomes. 

Often these students are working to support themselves or their families and don’t have the free time or the social or professional network to help them accumulate the kind of experiences, like coding camps and hackathons, that tech companies look favorably on. 

So the organization created a structure to give these students that initial experience, serving as an intermediary between students and industry. They found the companies, matched students with them as a way to bypass interviews that could show unintended bias, and coached students before and during the three-week experience in order to prepare them to succeed. The individual companies designed a challenge project for the team of students, who then concluded their microinternships with a final presentation. 

Among the promising results: 

  • In addition to eight in 10 “Sprintern” participants getting summer internship offers at their host companies, 64% of students received a summer internship offer from a company other than their host company.
  • Success was seen across all years in college. Juniors had the most internship offers, at 68%, followed closely by sophomores at 64%. More than half (52%) of freshmen who did sprinternships received internships offers. 

Especially encouraging are the strong results for freshmen, Spitz says. They expected upperclassmen to receive summer offers, but the fact that such a high number of younger students were getting offers showed the program was breaking down barriers and that students were coming out of it with the confidence and experience needed to stand out in an applicant pool and advance in their fields. 

“It’s not a one-off, it’s not ‘we got lucky,’ it’s not a ‘depends on,’” Spitz says. “This is a robust intervention that is filling a gap.” 

Between 2017 (the pilot year) and 2022, 1,246 students have done the microinternships, with the largest number—351—participating this year. 

  • Of the total, almost all of whom were female or nonbinary students, 50% were first-generation college goers.
  • Most attended universities where the majority of students were Pell Grant eligible.
  • And 11% were Black, 16% were Latina, 53% were Asian, and 13% were white. The remainder identified as multiracial.  

Growing interest in microinternships 

Employer surveys show that internship experience—either at that specific employer or another in a similar field—is at the top of what companies are looking for when they hire recent college grads, says Shawn VanDerziel, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers. 

“Employers are continually trying to find new ways to reach talent, and creating programs such as ‘Sprinternships’ or microinternships can be a really powerful tool to get at new talent, particularly early in the talent pipeline,” he says. 

VanDerziel sees a growing interest in microinternships and other experiential opportunities, which allow students to get a sense of the workplace and what kinds of work they may or may not be interested in. “They really get to see first hand what it’s like to be in a work environment and to understand an industry,” VanDerziel says. “It’s a win win.” 

Looking ahead: Break Through Tech, for one, is looking to expand outside of its partner universities to offer its support to more students and expand to more companies. Instead of going to companies seeking a home for microinterns, Break Through Tech envisions companies coming to them with a need that they can then find the students to fill. 

The group has done that already with American Express, which came to them seeking microinterns. Break Through Tech did a light marketing effort for students, Spitz says, and received many more interested students than the company needed.

“There’s a huge demand on the student side,” she says. 

Companies that want to attract a more diverse pool of talent but don’t have the recruiting relationship with the large public universities that Break Through Tech works with can turn to the organization to reach large numbers of those students, Spitz says. 

Parting thought: “If your company has the wherewithal to have a summer internship program, then you have the wherewithal to have a Sprinternship program as a pipeline feeder into that,” she says.

To read Work Shift‘s previous coverage of microinternships and Break Through Tech’s work in Chicago, click here.

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