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ALON EISENSTEIN
ALON EISENSTEIN

LEADERSHIP LAB

Startup internships provide a unique learning opportunity for students Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories here.

Providing an opportunity for students to intern at startups allows them to identify and demonstrate their talents, interests and skills. Ensuring our students are successful in translating their fundamental education into career opportunities is vital for the success of our students, businesses and economy.

During their education, Canadian post-secondary students obtain both fundamental expertise in their subject areas and a competency for learning and acquiring new skills. This combination of core competency with flexibility in the face of disruption makes them ideally placed in the knowledge-based economy. However, many graduates are unable to successfully find an immediate market for their experience, while companies continue to complain of being unable to find employees with the skills that they need.

In response to this challenge, both federal and provincial governments are focused on the idea of work-integrated learning. The Ontario government’s mandate letter to Deb Matthews, Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, includes the goal that “every student has at least one meaningful experiential learning opportunity by the time they graduate from postsecondary education.” Also, Navdeep Bains, Minster of Innovation, Science and Economic Development has recommended that educational institutions and businesses “expand work-integrated learning programs… for Canadians at every stage of their careers.”

The Impact Centre, an institute at the University of Toronto, has been addressing this challenge through startup internships for undergraduate students. Early-stage companies are constantly revisiting their business plans, re-evaluating their potential market and developing and re-developing their products. Placing post-secondary students in this environment allows them to understand the transferability of their skills and demonstrate their proficiency and flexibility. This opportunity can not only help make them more marketable but can expand their knowledge of possible career paths and alternative opportunities.

The internship brings life sciences, social sciences and even business students to work for companies with close ties to the university. These businesses are at the cutting edge of their industries, including next-generation LED lighting, digital pathology platforms and pharmaceuticals for neurological disorders.

Over the four years of the program, we have placed over 120 student interns. They work in areas including business development, customer relations, market research, accounting, data analysis and product management. Some students work in areas closely tied to their studies, while others are not obviously related but take advantage of important transferable skills. Both the students and employers are vetted and periodically interviewed to ensure the students are doing interesting and meaningful work.

Feedback from the students has been incredibly positive. Several students have been hired at large companies based on their internship experience, others became more confident in their career objectives and yet others recognized the need to reexamine their personal goals and broaden their professional aspirations. As Katherine King, a pharmacology and nutritional student and recent intern commented, “I’m coming out of the internship with a diverse skill set, and I’m certainly more confident in my capabilities as an employee.”

Some of the students are now considering starting their own companies, while others are excited to continue working in a startup environment. However, even those who do not plan to continue in the startup space benefit from the experience of testing their own abilities and interests in an environment where they have real impact. Institutions from multinationals to non-profits can benefit from students who are more experienced and confident in their abilities.

Our experience shows that with the proper structure, working in a startup environment provides a valuable work-integrated learning environment. Students should be on the lookout for these opportunities, companies should look for these programs as a way to recruit new talent and government should support these new models for work integrated learning.

Alon Eisenstein is an educator, experiential learning, with the Impact Centre at the University of Toronto.

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