Work experience, virtual experience, internships and student consultancies

Over the years Iridescent Ideas CIC has supported a number of what I would broadly term ‘work opportunities’ for younger people. These have been as formal as paid internships, as informal as hosting a week of work experience and semi-structured such as student consultancy projects. Each experience has its pros and cons and has produced different results for us and for the young people we worked with.

By Gareth Hart, Director, Iridescent Ideas CIC

In our first year of running the company we were approached by a student at a local university who wanted some work experience. It was a lovely surprise to get this email from a pioneering student showing a great deal of initiative. We talked and set a date and the student came to work with us for a week. It was all very informal and very relaxed. We were still a brand-new business and finding our way ourselves so hosting a student was a slightly odd experience. We’ve loosely kept in touch over the years and the student has gone on to wonderful things – winning a graduate placement with a major brand and working in high profile retail.

A couple of years later we were contacted by a young graduate who had family in the south west. Again, we were impressed by the graduate’s agency and initiative. This time the opportunity lasted a couple of months. We were able to provide the young person more structured research and work activities.

These were both informal and very serendipitous ‘work experiences’. We hadn’t gone out of our way to seek people and both candidates were extremely bright, capable and have gone on to have good careers.

Another activity we took part in during our early days as a company was a student consultancy scheme with a local university. The university advertised to local businesses to see if they wanted help with any projects that a team of first-year students could get their teeth into. We applied, requesting some marketing analysis and social media help. We were a bit surprised to find that we ended up with five different groups of five or six students looking into our company.

This time around the experience was a bit mixed. We showed students our ‘office’ – a hot desk at a local business hub. I’m not sure they quite understood what we did as there was nothing really to ‘see.’ Being a knowledge economy type business advice firm has always meant we lack any televisuality! 

However, one group – of marketing students – were very incisive and showed sharp business acumen. They stayed connected throughout and shared their final report which contained some great suggestions for our marketing. 

One thing I found frustrating about the experience was linked to the university’s management of the project. We never found out much about what the other student groups did. We had to chase the university for information, and it was only by chance that we found out one group was presenting its findings at a course seminar. This felt like it was very much an internal exercise for the university and students rather than a benefit for us. This may have been useful for the students, of course, but to us, it felt like we’d been slightly oversold on the project’s benefits. 

One interesting side note to this was that several years later one of the students contacted me to say that her experience finding out more about our work had really opened her eyes to social purpose businesses. This was a great moment! She’d gone on to develop a career in NGOs and social enterprises internationally. 

A more recent and more structured experience was working with a university on a paid virtual internship as part of a ‘Knowledge Exchange’ project. We submitted a brief and were paired with a student to produce some work on Google analytics and paid-for advertising. The student delivered the work over 37 hours across a month, and they were paid by the university. The project worked in some ways, and we did learn a bit about Google Ads, however, the final result for us – which was linked to delivering online workshops didn’t quite work out and, through no real fault of the student, we lost money on the project. My main constructive criticism of that process was that the application process could have been more robust. We didn’t get many applicants and a simple thing like getting references from university lecturers took ages.

Finally, we’ve just taken on a young leadership candidate through the Rank Foundation’s Time to Shine scheme. This scheme’s purpose is twofold, one: to enable individuals with the right skills, aptitude and work ethic, the opportunity to experience a 12-month paid leadership placement and two: to fill organisational, developmental and skills gaps in smaller organization by identifying a specific piece of work that can be completed in a year. We are only a month into this, but the experience has been great so far. We undertook the management of the recruitment, and the funder has been very flexible and supportive. We feel we’ve ended up with a great young person who is already showing insight and learning.

In summary, then, what are our main observations about these experiences? On the positive side:

  • We were impressed by young people showing initiative and contacting us on their own
  • Supporting young people in all these ways feels like the right thing to do
  • We got work done (for free)!
  • The opportunities allowed time to focus on areas of our organization that might otherwise have been neglected
  • Meeting some of the young people several years later to find out they’d enjoyed the experience was an unexpected joy
  • We’ve developed our leadership and management skills.

Drawbacks included:

  • The projects often took more of our time than expected to manage
  • The short-term experiences are not the same as having a dedicated employee
  • Sometimes the projects need careful management – e.g., on budgets, research and any client-facing meetings
  • There was a wide range of quality of work – some students were very perceptive others were still very inexperienced
  • We found that for many young people their ‘client/customer’ skills need developing – they need support for this to improve.

So how could these internships, work experience and knowledge exchange processes be better developed? In our view the following are critical:

  • Have a clear brief for the work as an organization
  • Set clear boundaries for the young people
  • Set expectations early on
  • Check for understanding at regular intervals
  • The process of application needs the right balance of rigour, ease of access and clarity
  • Institutions delivering the programmes need to fulfil basic management and communications duties in good time and with a supportive approach.

It was all learning for us. Looking back, we’d do it all again in a heartbeat – maybe with a few tweaks, of course. We developed as a business, and we hope that the young people got something the experiences too.