SBJ/20100111/Opinion

Online internship could serve student, university and company

It is no secret that most sports management programs require students to complete an internship or practicum to fulfill their degree requirements. It has been my experience, as a college professor for nearly 40 years, that not every student experiences an ideal internship, where he or she is exposed in a hands-on way to the decision-makers in the industry.

Internships have long been a key piece for a good business, and probably more important in the sports business than many others. Some teams, it seems, couldn’t get along without a solid corps of interns. Aggressive, smart, energetic and eager newcomers can often give any business an influx of fresh ideas and a very credible, creative and important work force at a very low price.

And these days, it’s not just a low price, it’s very often free labor. Many businesses, inside sports and out, paid their interns for many years. But these are tough times and, more often, interns are expected to work for free. It’s become standard practice for them, in fact, to be unpaid.

A lot of us have depended on interns to carry a pretty heavy workload for years. We have fed off their energy, fresh ideas and willingness to put in long hours in exchange for either inside knowledge of the business or the ultimate carrot on the end of a long stick — a full-time job.

In most cases, interns aren’t used for taking out the garbage, getting coffee for the boss or running errands. They are given specific tasks that help them learn the business, allowing them to take part in, or at least sit in on, important meetings. They can be given responsibility for developing and implementing key strategies or plans.

I’m betting that some of these talented people end up earning positions within your company. At their best, internships are a win-win proposition and a key piece of a successful business.

So how can we, in the face of these economic times, keep our internship programs vibrant, strong and, most important, effective for both the company and the students?

Innovation is the answer. We have to come up with new ways for students to learn the business, perhaps without them having to relocate. And the key, of course, is to continue making it a win-win.

So how do we do it? 

As a business owner, I know how difficult and time-consuming it can be to provide the ideal one-on-one mentoring you would like for each intern, due to confidentiality and the immense pressures in operating a business.

Another concern I have for many sports management students is that the dream internship opportunities can be difficult to land due to location, cost and availability. In this economic environment I have noticed an influx of internship applications for a limited number of openings per venue.

Students from a small school in a remote area may have limited options, yet those students often offer the talent and passion to be a change agent, given the opportunity. With the rapid growth of online education and course offerings available to students to complement their curriculum, why couldn’t a student consider enrolling in a virtual internship? In other words, can’t this be done online?

Students would receive live, interactive mentoring; face-to-face, on-site visits; and participation in weekly feedback sessions where students would update and share their experiences.

In the traditional world of higher education, it’s taken years for faculty and students to become comfortable with the online experience. 

I expect a virtual internship program will experience the same challenge in becoming an accepted alternative to the traditional on-site internship experience.

But we are in a revolution with the online opportunities in higher education around the world, much the same way as the cell phone has affected the pay phone. The end game for every sports management program is that its graduates have the tools to launch a career. Location and costs need not be a barrier to entry.

It’s possible to come up with a virtual internship program. And it can be a win-win for companies, universities and their students — a way for students to find sensible and valuable programs that not only satisfy graduation requirements, but are very affordable.

And it’s a way students can do an internship without leaving their current environment. The student gets the internship, the university gets a student who is now able to participate in a first-class program that provides guidance and knowledge from professionals in his or her chosen field, fulfilling that college’s internship requirement.

And your company gets an eager and thankful student, able to contribute in a lively way to making your company better.

The virtual internships could be flexible with start dates, can be tailored to suit a student’s individual interests and handled in any way you choose, hopefully giving them one-on-one time online with your key people.

 Why shouldn’t students do an internship online? We’re shopping, learning, communicating, even getting medical advice online these days, and it’s a venue that’s very comfortable for students from all over the world.

And when you think about it, how many of your interns’ tasks could be handled remotely, because it so often involves research where you’re sending them directly to a computer, anyway?

We believe that internship programs are just as important to our company as they are to the students. And we think by trying to be creative in our approach, we’ll be on the cutting edge of finding interns who can help grow our business while they grow their knowledge base.

Eventually, I have no doubt that some of them will turn into valuable employees for us or maybe even for you.

Lynn Lashbrook (lynn@smww.com) is president of Sports Management Worldwide, which offers online sports career training programs with students from more than 100 countries.

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