New website seeks to ease internships
'Internships drive local graduates to stay and work in New Hampshire'
Jason Alexander is hopeful that the intern search in New Hampshire just got a whole lot easier.
That's thanks to a new website he co-founded, nh-internships.com, a free-to-use resource that, in a perfect world, would match up every student in New Hampshire seeking an internship with every employer that is seeking an intern.
Alexander — managing partner of Bedford-based Bank W Holdings LLC, a portfolio of staffing and recruiting companies that includes Alexander Technology Group, KBW Financial Staffing & Recruiting and The Nagler Group — may run three successful, for-profit companies, but this new venture isn't intended to make anyone any money.
"The goal of the site, really and truly, is to be an economic development driver," said Alexander. "It's free, and it will be free always."
The user-friendly website not only allows employers to post their internship opportunities, but also to browse the resumes of prospective interns who have posted them to the site.
In a few simple steps, employers can provide details about their organization, the educational benefits of the internship, specify whether it's paid or unpaid and watch it go live when they're all done.
"Internships drive local graduates to stay and work in New Hampshire," said Alexander. "And when more local graduates stay in local jobs, the economy is inevitably stronger, so why not make more local students aware of more local internships?"
Alexander was the idea man behind the operation, but the WordPress site was actually built by volunteer developer Kristen Duval, a 25-year-old Hudson native who works in customer support at WhippleHill Communications in Bedford.
A self-taught developer, Duval learned how to build websites by reading books like "WordPress for Dummies" and watching countless hours of video tutorials on YouTube.
After working as a bank teller for nearly five years following high school — during which time she completed a degree from Manchester Community College — she left the industry in February 2011 to start her own job board website.
It was in that capacity that she met Alexander, who helped to connect her with the position at WhippleHill and also recruited her to build nh-internships.com.
"When he mentioned the idea to me, I said, 'That would be awesome, I would totally be willing to develop it,'" said Duval. She had the site up and running within a week.
"This big initiative that the state needed funding for — this girl did in four nights," said Alexander.
Young, educated and entrepreneurial, Duval is the exact kind of person who state officials and businesspeople are hungry to keep in New Hampshire in the coming years as it faces a graying of its population, an out-migration of its young people and a widening skills gap.
She's also part of an age group that is facing down the toughest job market in decades, one that has taken a severe toll on young, inexperienced workers.
In April, unemployment among those aged 20 to 24 was 13.2 percent, compared with a national unemployment rate of 8.1 percent.
For many of these young people, doing an internship — paid or unpaid — has become a gateway into the working world, a way to gain hands-on experience and possibly leverage the opportunity into a full-time job.
"If someone interns at an organization, they're much more likely to receive a job offer from that organization," said Matt Cookson, president of the New Hampshire High Tech Council, which is a supporting partner of the website. "If we have more businesses actively involved in engaging interns, it's the ultimate try-before-you-buy on both sides."
And even if an internship with a company doesn't turn into a job there, that experience still makes the intern more competitive in the future, said Tom Horgan, president of the New Hampshire College and University Council.
"Students, in a number of surveys that have been done, have commented that internships can be a real effective way of getting real-world learning and providing workplace experience so when they go looking for their first career, they've had experience that enhances their marketability."
To her knowledge, all higher education institutions in the state offer some kind of internship programs for their students, said Kate Luczko, executive director of Stay Work Play, a statewide nonprofit that aims to boost young worker retention and is also a supporting partner of the site.
But NH-Internships wasn't designed to compete with the schools' offerings, she said; rather, it's designed to complement them by centralizing all internship opportunities in one place.
As an employer, Alexander said he found it to be time-consuming and complicated to post individual opportunities to each of the schools' websites; plus, those opportunities are typically only available to the students at those colleges.
That leaves New Hampshire students attending college out of state or post-college internship seekers with basically only two options: "knowing someone, or Craigslist," said Luczko. "Or maybe it's someone who is finished with school and wants to take on some additional experience — it's a good way to make it easy and available to everyone."
'Open-source job board'
Much has been written about the potential of unpaid internships to exploit young, free labor, and of course there are the horror stories of interns who work long hours doing little more than filing or making coffee runs.
For those reasons, schools in the state "tend to be pretty protective of their students" when it comes to screening the educational benefits of an internship.
University of New Hampshire at Manchester, for example, requires that internships not be more than 30 percent clerical work, said Luczko.
To try to ensure that all the opportunities that are posted offer a legitimate benefit to young workers, nh-internships.com requires employers to describe in detail the educational benefits that their internship offers.
Students can then take an opportunity they have found on nh-internships.com to their college to see if it's eligible for credit.
"The way we're classifying an internship is as an employment opportunity that poses a learning opportunity first, as opposed to a cheap labor opportunity, which is why we have the site set up the way it is," said Alexander. "We need people to delineate what the learning opportunity is."
Complying with strict state and federal labor laws that concern the hiring of unpaid interns is entirely up to employer. (For more information about the laws governing unpaid internships, see "Hiring unpaid interns more complicated than you think," May 18-31 NHBR.)
While there are many considerations to be aware of before engaging an intern, there is also much to be gained from a successful internship, said Cookson.
"I encourage anyone who tried it once from an employer's standpoint who had a bad experience to try it again, because it's such a valuable experience for a future employee," said Cookson, who himself did two internships early in his career — one in a congressman's office, another at a newspaper that culminated in a job offer.
Sometimes it can feel daunting for employers to know where to start when taking on an intern for the first time, said Luczko. But "if there's a clear need that can fulfill an educational benefit to a student, I think it can be as simple as that."
For Alexander, the nh-internships.com site is basically "an electronic conversation broker."
"I consider it to be an open-source job board for the state to utilize, and for those organizations that want to take ownership of it."