Covid Interns, a platform set up by college friends Paddy Ryder and Rob Muldowney, seeks to match student volunteers with struggling SMEs.
It’s obvious that Covid-19 has impacted working life in many ways, from forcing us to work from home to pay cuts and job losses. But how have the past few months played out for students hoping to get some work experience?
Like many young people, Trinity College Dublin business school graduates Paddy Ryder and Rob Muldowney had their post-graduation plans turned upside down by the pandemic. The extent of the disruption began to dawn on them this time last year when the job interviews and internships they had applied for were cancelled or put on hold.
From talking to their peers, they knew students everywhere were in the same boat, and this prompted them to set up Covid Interns, a matchmaking service that connects students with small companies looking for short-term help. Their business, which hit the ground running last May, has since placed 150 students (and counting) in internship roles with more than 130 companies here and abroad. Applications are now open for the 2021 intake.
Covid Interns is motivated by the desire to help both sets of afflicted people by connecting their needs and capabilities. Students and graduates have seen their travel plans and internship prospects snatched away by the pandemic, but remain digitally skilled and tech savvy as a cohort. Small-business-owners now face a commercial landscape where business is done in an entirely different way, with a greater reliance on digital platforms and delivery models to drive sales.
Covid Interns is an attempt to pair SMEs struggling to adapt to the digitally dominated commercial world of the pandemic with students who can help that adaptation. The motivation is to help two groups of people by connecting them. We wanted to turn a negative into a positive.
“We could see how small and family businesses were hurting due to the pandemic and that many of them needed help, especially if they were suddenly faced with moving their business online and didn’t have skills to make this happen,” says Ryder.
“Our aim with Covid Interns was to establish a social enterprise that would connect small businesses facing the commercial challenges of Covid-19 with volunteer students and graduates with specialised skills who could make a lasting difference within their communities by helping these businesses to navigate the crisis.
“In return, students and graduates got the opportunity to gain valuable experience in fields such as digital marketing, financial planning, consulting, web development, PR, content writing and social media management.”
Covid Interns ran on sweat equity last year but Ryder says that to make it a sustainable business, the platform is now charging commercial enterprises a fee for its service. There is still no charge for charities or voluntary groups.
So far, the SMEs signing up to take interns this year have come from all sorts of sectors, including small family food businesses, tech start-ups, web development, data analysis and the hospitality industry.
Ryder said an “intense” period of up to 60-hour weeks was required to get Covid Interns off the ground last summer. Muldowney also started on LetsGetChecked’s graduate scheme shortly thereafter.
“The process was really smooth and easy and, having supplied Covid Interns with a job spec for a data analytics role, they were back within a week with a very high-calibre candidate who has continued to work with me part time since starting his master’s.
“I took on a second Covid Intern last year and have another working with me now, and each time I have been blown away by the calibre of the people they’ve sent me.”
Covid Interns are not restricting their placements to full-time summer internships. They are also matchmaking students and companies for short-term projects that undergraduates can do while still studying. These typically involve a flexible time commitment of 10-15 hours a week, and Ryder says the idea is to help students build their networks and gain experience that will stand to them when they start looking for permanent jobs.
The system will receive CVs from their applicant volunteers and learn their desires, interests and availability. They receive contact from businesses and develop an understanding of what sort of assistance they’re looking for.
They then go back to their database of volunteers and very deliberately select a candidate that can deliver valuable help to the partnered business based on their stated needs.
After that, they send the candidate’s CV over to the business owner and if they like the volunteer they can reach out and finalise the terms of the volunteer placement. Most placements involve a number of hours a week in total for project-oriented work, however some more intensive roles have been agreed. The business owner and volunteer then take it from there.
‘A bit of belief and hard work’
They’ve since expanded their team, with seven people now working at Covid Interns. They’ve also started charging for successful placements, albeit at a “pretty modest” fee, Muldowney said.
“I think part of the appeal of Covid Interns is that it’s not your typical student job in a fast food outlet. We’re putting people into real business environments where they stand to learn a lot while also giving something back,” says Ryder, who is now studying for an MSc in finance and accounting at Imperial College in London.
The majority of the internships that students are placed with are paid, with voluntary unpaid placements reserved only for charities or other businesses hard-hit by the pandemic. These voluntary internships also have a cap on weekly working hours.
Covid Interns is continuing to see growth, with almost 1,000 candidates applying in the last couple of months alone.
Ryder said one of the biggest lessons he’d learned from starting Covid Interns was not to “put a limitation or a cap on where you see something going.”
“When we launched we probably had pretty modest ambitions and then suddenly with a bit of belief and a bit of hard work, we’ve placed people in different continents, in different counties, every single sector and (been) blown away by where it’s gone,” he added.