Integrated Innovation Network
Tricia Martin is founder of Virtual Intern, a platform connecting High School students to interactive digital internships which develop their skills and build work mindsets .
Like taking your first driving lesson, studying for your HSCs, or sneaking home past curfew, work experience is a teenager’s rite of passage which many of us have fond (or not quite so fond) memories of ourselves.
But while workplace cultures and job descriptions might have evolved substantially over the years, work experience relevance, diversity, and accessibility remain limited. Facilitating placements for a cohort of students is a complex and long-winded process, and many student’s experiences are restricted to what falls immediately within their parents’ networks. In addition, once the student arrives in the workplace, there is a limit on the type of tasks and responsibilities they can undertake.
Sadly, this disconnect between school based work-readiness projects and real-world workplaces can lead to apathy and anxiety regarding future career opportunities. It’s a reality that became all too apparent to Virtual Intern CEO Tricia Martin throughout her work with schools across the state in her previous role as a career-readiness workshop facilitator.
“Over the three years I think I might have seen over 35,000 students and I was hearing a lot of the same comments around their future and careers. It was all very much along the lines of ‘What am I going to do with this?’” remembers Tricia. “Many students don’t know what they want to do after school, and they can feel overwhelmed – so there’s all this nervous energy flying around but there’s no direct filter of where to put it.” She began talking more to teachers, parents, and businesses about what was most valuable about work experience, and what needed to change. “It emerged that even though we all agree work experience is great because it is so relevant, real opportunities are still limited not just because of age and logistics, but because for many of the fields – psychology, medicine, and law for example - it isn’t possible to offer work experience due to the nature of what goes on.”
As the workplace shifts increasingly to online, digital, and work-from-home models of productivity, being present in a physical workspace is no longer as much of a necessity as it used to be. This is where Tricia saw an opportunity – to bridge that gap between students and businesses – and design online accessible experiences that would offer value to both parties. “From a business point of view, we find it a real struggle to find and recruit young people who have an appetite for the industry – especially when so many roles have only existed for three or four years: they’re not in the textbooks, and a lot of the grads who do end up there are just there by default. So it just makes sense for organisations to start securing their talent pipeline early on.”
The Virtual Intern team works with local businesses to develop work experience multi-media ‘resource packs’ which the students can use to complete realistic work tasks. The students then receive feedback on their work from the businesses themselves. “They are immediately engaged because they are like, ‘Wow! I can actually access these industries that are beyond my immediate network.’ And the employees themselves are excited as well, because they’re showcasing their industry and engaging with their future workforce - even before they leave school.”
The program is similar in its nature to large scale metropolitan based e-learning platforms, which partner with corporate organisations to offer digital work-experience programs to students nationally. But Tricia’s strategy has always a major point of difference – the scheme is developed with regional students in mind. “Those programs have been developed by people who live in Sydney for Sydney schools. But regional student experiences and opportunities are so different to those in metropolitan areas – and particularly in the Hunter region where it is so much about community and culture, you just can’t replicate that. So we have been working from the ground up in asking people, ‘Hey, what do YOU need?’” explains Tricia. “Now I’m working on balancing how to process all of it efficiently without losing any of that unique, personalised quality.”
Tricia nurtured her idea for the platform for several months before she was able to start making it a reality. “For me, work experience was always in the back of my head. I knew it needed to change up and we needed a solution for that,” she says. She had previously connected with Venture Mentor Service (VMS) mentor Michelle Crawford at a career readiness event, where Michelle was delivering a financial literacy workshop, and she encouraged Tricia to look into I2N’s upcoming VMS mentorship program. “As soon as I heard about it, I started seeing it everywhere and hearing about it in conversations – ‘Have you heard what’s coming out of the University of Newcastle? There’s this amazing thing!’ - So for a while there I was a bit of a fly on the wall, I kept dropping in to check on how the project was progressing. I just really wanted in!” laughs Tricia.
Not surprisingly, Tricia’s application to the program was successful, and she’s now been connected with three female mentors with experience across an array of different industries who have been coaching her throughout the launch of Virtual Intern, and as the business expands. “The moment they started asking me questions, I realised I had to up my business game – I felt so overwhelmed but empowered at the same time,” says Tricia. “It’s completely re-shaped how I approach work in general.”
The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.