Microinterns? In one state, employers are slowly testing the idea

When Kansas became the first state to launch a microinternship program two years ago, students showed up, but fewer companies did. Now, the state is hoping to change that with a new grant program for employers and community colleges.

Two years ago, Kansas became the first state to start a microinternship program, offering short, paid professional assignments to students at the state’s 32 community colleges or public, four-year institutions.

The big idea: The goal was to help students get career experience and connect the state’s employers with its soon-to-be graduates—especially those who lived or attended college far from the state’s major cities and employers. The microinternships, offered through the Parker Dewey platform, are designed to give employers a low stakes way to test out talent. 

But microinternships are a relatively new idea, and getting Kansas employers to sign on has proved to be a challenge, says Tim Peterson, senior projects director for the Kansas Board of Regents. While 1,280 students had registered on the platform, only 124 companies had done so. Through the beginning of March, companies or other employers had posted 113 projects, and 55 had been completed.

“We’ve got about 10 times as many students as employers so far, which means we have a lot of students who are wanting projects,” Peterson says. “That’s been the frustrating part but I think we’re on the cusp of really addressing that.” 

Shifting gears: Moving forward, the state plans to do much more focused work with a group of seven community and technical colleges, while still keeping the program open to all its public college students. That new initiative, supported by a $400,000 grant from Strada Education Network, will do targeted outreach to both students and employers, and will offer employers incentives to participate. 

Campus liaisons will reach out to their local employers to explain the program, and student ambassadors will spread the word to students on campus. There’s also money for marketing the program through LinkedIn and other media. Employers who sign up will be eligible for small grants of up to $500 per project for the first two projects, up to $1000. 

The hope is that the money encourages organizations to give the program a try, and once they see the benefits, they’ll continue on and hire more microinterns, Peterson says. According to Parker Dewey’s data on employers, that’s a typical pattern.

Expanding access to internships 

Photo courtesy of Kansas State University

Parker Dewey, a pioneer in the growing field of microinternships, seeks to expand hiring pools and offer opportunities to students from all backgrounds, including those who don’t attend highly-selective colleges. More than 600 colleges and universities now partner with the Chicago-based firm, including a growing number of community colleges.

The microinternships offer short-term professional assignments, typically 10-40 hours of work, to college students and recent graduates. The assignments pay $15-$25 per hour, with interns getting 90 percent of payments. Companies can use what students produce—market research, financial analyses, communications material, and the like—for their business, in addition to using the platform to test out interns or full-time hires. 

Most of the projects are remote, which is key for the many college students in Kansas who live in rural areas or too far from employers to make an in-person work experience possible. 

Sophie Osborn, a junior at Kansas State University, has taken advantage of microinternships, completing more than a dozen with employers in and out of Kansas. She first heard about the concept of microinternships on TikTok, and after investigating them, found the state’s program.

Osborn, who comes from a small town in Kansas, had done an in-person internship in human resources at a cement factory in her hometown, but that was about the limit of what was available there. The remote microinternships allowed her to work for companies based in different cities and to try different things. 

Osborn has completed projects in marketing, human resources, nonprofit work, and more. “It’s been a great way to narrow down what I want to do,” she says.

The money made a difference, too. Osborn found she could earn more doing these projects than what many of the jobs in her college town were offering, and she could do them late at night or whenever worked for her. She even did some microinternships while studying abroad in Sweden and Denmark, in order to make extra money. 

The microinternship experiences helped her when she applied for summer internships. Osborn says the recruiters she spoke to often asked about them. This summer, she has a paid consulting internship in Dallas—which interests her in part because consulting offers a similar variety of work as she’s done via the microinternships.      

Fighting brain drain 

Kansas hopes that students like Osborn ultimately keep all that experience in the state. Part of the goal of the microinternship program is to connect Kansas employers with students who may become future employees and stay in the state. 

Brain drain is an issue in large parts of the state, with college graduates either moving to larger cities or outside the state altogether. And the number of jobs are growing in Kansas, while the population in most of the state’s 105 counties is declining, Peterson says. 

“We need to figure out a way to connect our students that we do have with all of these employers,” Peterson says. 

Because the program is through the Parker Dewey platform, students can apply to microinternships in any area. And non-Kansas students can apply to the Kansas jobs. However, employers only get the $500 grant if they are located in the state and hire a student from one of Kansas’ public institutions.

Still, Peterson says, it’s a win if the state’s students get the kind of professional experience that helps them succeed, even if the location isn’t Kansas. 

If a student finds a great project and job opportunity somewhere else, “more power to them,” he says. “That’s a success to them, even though we would have liked to keep them here in Kansas.”

By building out the microinternship program with the Strada grant, Peterson hopes to see many more students, including those who would be unable to take time away from work or caregiving to do a traditional internship, build their networks and get experience that leads to full internships and jobs. And he’s optimistic that the program will get state funding as early as 2025. (The governor proposed funding in next year’s budget, but the legislature did not approve it.)  

“My hope is we will have hundreds of those if not thousands of [microinternships] in the next four to five years and that most of those students will end up right here in Kansas,” Peterson says.  

Local outreach takes root

Local outreach is already bringing more businesses and nonprofits into the program. A Bolder Humboldt, a community development organization in southeast Kansas, recently hired its first microintern after a representative from nearby Neosho County Community College contacted Damaris Kunkler, the community engagement director, about the program. 

Damaris Kunkler (left) of A Bolder Humboldt, a nonprofit, hired Danni Sims, a student at Neosho County Community College, for a microinternship. (Photo here and at top courtesy of Damaris Kunkler)

Humboldt, a town of 1,700 people, is engaged in a revitalization effort to turn old buildings into new businesses such as a brewery, music hall, coffee shop, and restaurants to attract visitors to the 1.5-square mile town. Along with the business projects, A Bolder Humboldt focuses on community building with events such as outdoor movies and a town-wide water fight called Water Wars.

Kunkler had a particular project she needed done quickly but didn’t have time for—uploading local business information and photos to the state’s tourism website. She posted the project and Danni Sims, a student at Neosho, applied. 

Sims, who is studying computer information systems at the college and plans to transfer to a  four-year university in Kansas in the fall, heard about the microinternship program from her microeconomics professor, who sent students an email about the program. After signing up on the Parker Dewey platform and completing an interest assessment, the project at A Bolder Humboldt was recommended to Sims.  

Sims worked on the project both remotely and in the Humboldt office during spring break, when the state tourism director came to give an in-person training on the web site, and said the experience was a positive one. The money was nice, but the experience was the most valuable to her. 

It was also positive for Kunkler, who got a needed project finished and got experience trying microinternships. 

“It is very different than a regular internship, when I’ve got somebody for a full semester or for a year,” she said. “With a short internship like that you don’t really get a chance to have a deep level interpersonal relationship, but it didn’t matter, because she was easy to work with and she’ll be able to put this on her resume.” She’ll also serve as a reference for Sims.

Kunkler is now thinking of ways she could possibly offer other work to students living farther away. She received one application from a student who lives in New York and is attending a Kansas university online. And she says she’d consider recommending the Kansas microinternship program to her college-age daughter as well. 

“It seems like a perfect way to dive in and try a piece of every little thing you care about,” she says.

Editor’s note: Strada Education Network has been a financial supporter of Work Shift. Read more about our policy on transparency and editorial independence here.

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