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Interns at startups do more than fetch coffee

Bassam Abdellatif, a Jordanian studying at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, has an internship at athletic wear startup Adrenalease. ‘I’ve been put into positions I never would have been put into in lectures. It’s expanding my skill set beyond lectures.’

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Internships at big companies have long been a rite of passage for college and university students, a sought-after and often rewarding foot in the door of the corporate workplace.

But, in a sign of the changing times, some institutions are thinking smaller with the placements they're offering. The result – internships at startups are becoming common.

"Most people have a vague idea of what a startup really is," says Alon Eisenstein, internship program co-ordinator at the University of Toronto's Impact Centre. "This gives students an opportunity to see the inner workings."

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The Impact Centre, the university's science-oriented startup accelerator, is now in its fourth year of co-ordinating work placements for undergraduate students at startups, or those companies with typically a handful of employees.

Just a few students participated in the program in its first few years, but enrolment is now ramping up. About 35 students from a range of faculties, including finance, science and physical education, are currently working with the Impact Centre and its 50 associated startups. Twenty more placements are set for the coming summer session.

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The biggest advantage of working for a startup, Mr. Eisenstein says, is that students get to do more than they might at a larger company. Rather than fetching coffee or making photocopies, as per the stereotype, they're more likely to be involved in key decisions and working closely with company founders and executives.

"It gives them the biggest potential for meaningful impacts and contributions," Mr. Eisenstein says.

The relatively new program mirrors the shift in the larger work force. The number of Canadians working in small companies – those with fewer than 100 staff – has exploded over the past decade.

Small businesses' total employment increased by more than one million employees between 2005 and 2015, according to Statistics Canada, compared with 90,000 employees for medium-sized operations and 53,000 employees for large companies.

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Numerous studies have also shown that millennials put a high priority on finding jobs that provide meaningful work, even right out of school.

The Impact Centre's placements, which require students to work 200 hours at their respective companies, are unpaid. They are part of the university's innovation and entrepreneurship course curriculum, for which students get credit. As with other internships, participating employers are also free to offer students jobs once they complete their studies.

A number of the companies, including physician-finding app developer iamsick.ca, pathology software maker Pathcore and wearables designer Breq Labs, have hired students they've worked with, Mr. Eisenstein says.

The experience is positive for students even if they don't end up liking their startup placements, he adds, since it allows them to decide whether small companies are for them or whether they might prefer a more traditional work environment at a bigger business.

"It's a good thing because you learn something about yourself," he says.

For their part, participating companies appreciate the extra labour, but the program also allows them to experiment with expertise to which they may not normally have access.

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Noureddin Chahrour, whose background is kinesiology, has had commerce and statistics students, for example, work on developing sales projections for his athletic wear startup Adrenalease.

"Areas where we don't necessarily have expertise in, they can fill those gaps," he says. "There's a million things to do and we may not have the time to do them [ourselves]."

Bassam Abdellatif, a bachelor of commerce student from Jordan who is currently studying finance and in a placement at Adrenalease, says the experience is providing work experience that he's been unable to get elsewhere.

"It's very difficult as an international student to get that experience because we can't work more than 20 hours a week. Employers are less inclined to hire international students," he says.

"I've been put into positions I never would have been put into in lectures. It's expanding my skill set beyond lectures."

The University of Toronto isn't alone in exploring work placements with startups. The Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia and Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business in Waco, Tex., are running similar academic programs. The University of New Hampshire and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., also have non-academic paid internships.

Employment experts say the shift is reflective of today's workers needing to be flexible and well-rounded.

"Any chance where students can have real-world experience, and especially like this where it's going to be interesting and engaging, is a great opportunity," says Lee Weisser, a senior coach at Toronto-based counselling firm Careers By Design.

"It's something they can put interest into, rather than feeling they just have to put in time."

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About the Author

Peter Nowak has been writing about technology for 20 years, with a focus on trends and how they affect the world. He worked at The Globe and Mail between 1997 and 2004 before moving to China and then New Zealand, where he won the award for best technology reporter at the New Zealand Herald. More

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