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.
What’s different about Covid Interns is that its service is aimed at SMEs, not at big businesses, which already have well-established internship pathways.
“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.”
Traditionally, SMEs have not been part of the internship process, and Ryder says that, from talking to business groups, it became clear that most small companies didn’t know how to go about taking on an intern or how a young student could help them.
“It was clear to us that we had skills that could be of use and that it was in our hands to make businesses aware of this. It was also clear that the problem was time-sensitive for students and businesses alike so we had the idea in April, did our finals in May and started Covid Interns a few days later.”
The founders promoted their idea through college societies, social media and business organisations. The response was immediate.
"We have placed students from every Irish university, and more than 20 universities in the UK, including the University of Cambridge, the London School of Economics, the University of Edinburgh and Imperial College," Ryder says. "We have placed people from New York to Singapore and in Canada, France and Germany, although most placements so far have been in Ireland and the UK."
After the success of last year’s programme, the 2021 programme was launched in January. So far, more than 700 students from all disciplines have applied.
“Business students make up the lion’s share but we also have legal, engineering and digital marketing in there and we carefully screen the students to ensure we are giving companies access to the best quality talent available,” Ryder says.
Tom O’Brien, founder of agile management consultancy Sprintmodo, saw the ad for Covid Interns on the Irish International Business Network site last summer. “The timing was perfect, as I was about to start trading and needed some extra help to maintain momentum on a few things,” he says.
“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.
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.
“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.
As fresh-faced graduates themselves, Ryder says setting up the business, which now has a team of five, has been a learning curve. However, as a former Glenstal Abbey student, he says being able to tap into the school’s alumni for advice and guidance has been a big help.