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Virtual and Internships – Are They The Perfect Match In Government?

Interns. They are the life-blood of Washington. Every few months, a new crop descend on DC like a swarm of driven and focused locusts, hoping to make their agency just a little bit better. But at the same time, internships can be very expensive and time consuming for agencies. So how can agencies maximize internships, get the best and the brightest and still save money? Here’s a hint. Virtual.

The State Department has launched a virtual internship program that is already home to 505 interns across the country.

Bridget Roddy is the Virtual Student Foreign Service Manager (VSFS) at the State Department. Roddy told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program DorobekINSIDER program that the VSFS program has already yielded terrific results.

“VSFS is a virtual internship program for US college students. When Secretary Clinton first announced the program back in 2009 we didn’t really have a sense of what VSFS would become. We had the ability to shape it into something that was both beneficial for the state department, US government and to students,” said Roddy.

How VSFS works?

“The college students, can be undergrad, grad or PHD students, and they have the opportunity to see what projects are available from State Department offices either here domestically or at our Embassies overseas. Students can see what they are interested in whether that is healthcare, translations, social media outreach, in depth analysis and research and then they pick what they want to work on. If they are selected, our interns work for about 10 hours a week from the fall to the spring,” said Roddy.

This is all done virtually right?

“The students are still in school, so they can work at 10pm at night or at 9am in the dining hall while they are having breakfast. It is a very flexible program that can be worked on anywhere and also help our employees to look at different ways of communicating virtually. We have to use google docs, skype chats etc, so this program is also helping our employees learn virtually as well,” said Roddy.

How do you get the word out?

“It is still a relatively new program so students and universities are becoming more familiar with the idea of doing a virtual internship. But we still rely a lot on using social media to get the word out. We actually called a few universities that have different programs. We are really interested in finding students with an IT background. We rely a lot on word of mouth and some of the traditional human resource recruitment channels,” said Roddy.

Who are the interns?

“This year we had 2,600 students apply, which is actually double the number of applicants from last year. So we are seeing a big jump in interest and the number of projects we have available. Right now there are 505 US students who are virtual interns. They are working on 276 different projects. We have seen the numbers double almost every year since we started in 2009,” said Roddy.

  • Key Insight: “What we are seeing is that having students don’t have to spend money to come to Washington. We are also able to open up the doors to a lot of students from all backgrounds and majors. For example, we have a lot of non-traditional students who may have a family and could take time away for a more traditional internship. On the Embassy side, they are able to benefit from having students with all these great ideas and new ways of looking at problems. It has been a very positeve experience for both our students and our staff,” said Roddy.

How did you get this process started?

“No one had set up a virtual internship before, so we really didn’t know how to do it. We relied a lot on talking with our legal department and then they would mention something about privacy issues and then looking at the paperwork reduction act. We had all these boxes we wanted to check to make sure we were complying with regulations when we were setting up the program. It probably took us a year and a half until we felt comfortable,” said Roddy.

Lessons learned?

  • “You need to have one full-time person dedicated to managing and running the program. When VSFS was created we weren’t sure where the program was going to be housed. Should it fit in the HR system or the virtual exchange program? We ended up looking at our office, eDiplomacy and saying well we take on new challenges and programs so this is where the program should be housed. I think finding the right office to champion the program and having high level support are key.”
  • “We looked a lot at how long the virtual internship program should be. Our traditional internships are 10 weeks. To bring students to DC or to one of our embassies overseas it takes a lot of paperwork and security clearances. So we thought, we don’t want to have a lot of time and effort put in for students if the students aren’t coming to Washington, so how do you make the process easy? We don’t do security clearances and students are able to come on board within a few weeks of being notified they have been selected. It has been working fairly well for us to have this program once a year for about eight months. It creates a long-term engagement.”

Students can apply for the 2014-2015 program through USAJobs in July 2014. This year, 511 students are virtually interning on 276 projects with eight federal agencies.

Part two of our interview with Roddy.

Interested in standing up a virtual internship program at your agency? I’d encourage you to reach out to GovLoop’s Director of Training and Development, Andrew Krzmarzick, who can help you with the process. Email ([email protected]) or call (202-352-1806) him and he’d be happy to talk more.

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

I LOVE this idea of e-Interns and “Micro-Volunteering!” I think that EVERY agency, at the Federal, State, and Local level, should pursue this cost-effective, innovative program to get more students engaged in government. Great way to get volunteers engaged, regardless of where they live!

Ryan Arba

I think this is a big no-brainer and any agency should adopt it ASAP. I had one too many government internships where it was, “show up, sit at your desk, and wait for instructions.” Well, sometimes I would wait a few weeks if my manager was busy. When I would ask what I could do to help, they would give me something to read. What a waste of time!

Instead, internships of the future (and maybe even present) should have a clear deliverable attached to it. As I’ve observed, many busy managers and staff alike often spend their time completing urgent tasks all day (aka emergency responding). The virtual intern would be a great opportunity to hand-off projects that are considered important, but not-urgent. The manager could invest a few hours of their time setting the parameters of the project and handing it off to a virtual intern to complete by a certain date. Think about the potential!

While my department still had “butts-in-seats” interns this summer, we used the deliverable approach to work wonders. In essence, by the end of the summer, each intern had to present their project to the entire department. Their work included research, launching a facebook page, and creating a quality improvement project. It was a win-win for everyone. It beat the hell out of my old school “wait-and-see” internships of the past.

Thanks for the post!