Internships and Apprenticeships in a Newly Virtual Workplace

Woman in virtual meeting

Work-based learning opportunities, like internships and apprenticeships, are a critical component to many career and technical education programs. They can help participants develop critical skills for in-demand careers. The abrupt shift to virtual education caused by the pandemic hit these programs especially hard.

In this episode, Leigh Parise talks with Hannah Dalporto, a research associate at MDRC, who recently cowrote a piece about how employers and trainers have been adapting their services during the pandemic to keep students connected to the labor market.

Leigh: Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? Welcome to Evidence First, a podcast from MDRC that explores the best evidence available on how to improve the lives of low-income people. I'm your host, Leigh Parise.

The abrupt shift to virtual educational interactions caused by the pandemic hit work-based learning opportunities, like internships and apprenticeships, especially hard. These are a critical component to many career and technical education and sectoral training programs, which help participants develop critical skills for their careers. Today we will talk with Hannah Dalporto, a research associate at MDRC, who recently cowrote a piece on how employers and trainers have been adapting these services to keep students connected to the labor market during these difficult times.

Hannah, thank you so much for joining me. I'm really excited to get to talk to you about this important topic. So, we all know that the shift to remote learning and working happened very quickly. Can you tell us some about how the programs that we partner with adapted their services?

Hannah: Yeah. So, some providers were exploring and implementing shorter-term consultancies, or micro-internships, which usually last just a couple weeks, or are task based, but also provide a lot of flexibility and nimbleness. So, for example, YouthForce NOLA, in Louisiana, usually coordinates 90-hour internships for high school students. But after surveying employer partners during the pandemic, they were able to develop these customized, 40-hour consultancies for their interns and employer partners across social media, consulting, digital media, coding-related or adjacent tasks.

And another approach we heard is that, in cases where it's not possible for students to telework, whether because of the industry or just the nature of their work, the providers are using this as an opportunity to focus on upskilling students, in terms of both professional and technical skills. So at Urban Alliance, which is a youth workforce development organization that usually coordinates internships for high school students, those students who aren't able to telework are staying engaged through an updated professional skills training curriculum, and through virtual workshops.

One more example from the college and career academy support network, which supports schools with college and career readiness, as part of that network, students and several schools are taking the lead in codeveloping their work-based learning opportunities and micro-internship placements, and helping arrange speakers for online forums or workshops or academy events. Again, those are for those students who are not able to telework but do have internet access.

Leigh: Thank you. Okay. So I want to ask one follow-up question. So I think sometimes, particularly in the COVID world, I'm hearing terms like “consultancies” and “micro-internships,” and it would be great if you could just say how you describe what those are.

Hannah: Yeah. So I think a consultancy or a micro-internship is really a task-based, work experience that allows for a more, sort of, concrete, or project-based, intervention. They also tend to be shorter term, and in a sort of shorter duration. So they usually last only a couple of weeks, where an internship, a typical internship, will last an entire semester or school year, or even a summer.

Leigh: All right. So are there any benefits to connecting students to work remotely? What are some of the lessons that we've been learning?

Hannah: Absolutely. So transportation is often at the top of the list of, you know, challenges that students and participants have to confront when finding and getting to these work-based learning experiences. But as you can imagine, when telework is possible, those transportation challenges are at least, you know, sort of eased. And then, sort of broadly, I think the switch to remote work can also allow providers and their students to reach farther-flung employers, because they are no long tethered to this, sort of, geographic radius.

One example here would be the California-based XP, which provides internships to high school students. And that organization is now able to engage with employers outside the state, who can support those work-based learning opportunities remotely. And I think more broadly, you know, the switch to remote has allowed for a much broader array of employer engagements and connections, where before they were sort of limited to, you know, who was down the street from where students lived or went to school.

Leigh: Great. Now that sounds really great and, like, a positive aspect of some of the changes that have had to happen. But what about students who lack the technology to connect? How can we make sure that those students are also supported and getting opportunities?

Hannah: So this is a really tough nut to crack, and I don't think we have any simple answers, because addressing lack of devices or internet access really requires these coordinated, widespread infrastructure upgrades, which often can be beyond the scope of individual programs or schools. But, there are some encouraging examples of innovation out there that we heard [about]. So in the Bronx, for example, one organization that connects young people to career paths, called Here to Here, was able to provide laptops and [wifi] hotspots to students through their Bronx Community Relief effort.

Another example is using public spaces with wifi hotspots—so libraries, or even the school parking lot—to try to address some of those internet access issues. But, you know, I want to underscore that it really is a serious threat to equity in our education system, given that the digital divide across racial groups, and across urban and rural is well-documented.

Leigh: All right. So any last takeaways? Things that you feel people who are listening to this really should know or should hear about based on the conversations we've been having with the partners?

Hannah: I do. So I sometimes hear the case made that work-based learning for young adults is just sort of like a bonus paycheck, or, you know, that the pay isn't really a necessity. But we heard from so many of our partners that, in fact, these wages are often used to help their families out, or to pay for food, or just simply to reduce the burden on, you know, families and parents who aren't making a lot of money. And here, too, I'll finally bring up the example of our partners at CareerWise Colorado, which connect students with longer-term  apprenticeships that are multiple years in duration. Because we've heard there that many apprentices were able to stay on and continue working, assuming that they and their parents agree to a stay, because they were deemed a part of the essential business, even in, like, health care settings. And I think what this tells me is that the more we start to recognize these experiences as essential for communities and students and for employers, then hopefully the better we can weather these unexpected disruptions and make some headway at addressing these inequities.

It's also worth noting that these programs are really dedicated to their students, and it's important to understand that the additional support that these programs often provide—whether its supplemental financial support, or providing technology and devices and [wifi] hotspots, or sort of more personally, these intangibles, like coaching and, you know, guiding somebody through or advising somebody through the process of applying for an internship or a job—those are all aspects that, you know, contribute to inequity gaps that I think we're all working against.

Leigh: Yeah, I think that's one of the things that I really appreciate about so many of the organizations working in this space right now, is that they are working really hard to do everything they can to figure out what students' needs are, and how to be responsive and supportive of those needs. And it's nice to see just how hard and the lengths that people are going to, to try to keep that eye on “This is really what I want for the students that I work with, and this is how I want to be supportive of them.”

Hannah, thank you so much for joining me. This has been really great to get to hear from you.

Hannah: Thank you so much, Leigh, and thank you to all of our partners who help make this work possible.

Leigh: To learn more about our work, visit Did you enjoy this episode? Subscribe to the Evidence First podcast for more.

About Evidence First

Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? MDRC’s Evidence First podcast features experts—program administrators, policymakers, and researchers—talking about the best evidence available on education and social programs that serve people with low incomes.

About Leigh Parise

Leigh PariseEvidence First host Leigh Parise plays a lead role in MDRC’s education-focused program-development efforts and conducts mixed-methods education research. More