An Inspirational Pivot by An Inspirational Organization: 5 Great Business Lessons from UpTurnships™

Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at different for-profit companies that have found creative ways to pivot during this pandemic. This week, let’s look at a cool non-profit that’s had to rethink everything in the last 75 days: UpTurnships™. 

Quick Background: UpTurnships was founded in 2014 by a team of seasoned corporate professionals who recognized a huge inefficiency in the job placement market: There were fast-growing companies looking for talent – as well as scores of diverse students looking for opportunities – but the two groups were often invisible to each other.  

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The UpTurnships team quickly realized that many of these talented students (particularly those coming from under-represented communities) were not prepared, equipped or experienced to effectively find an internship – nor were they poised to succeed once they had secured a position.  

Working with a great team of volunteer professionals who act as coaches and trainers, UpTurnships has trained and placed almost 165 students into paid internships over the past five years. And the program is effective over the long-term, as 82% of participants find full-time jobs within two months of graduation, and 75% of those graduates stay in their first job more than a year (the national average is an abysmal 29%).  

The Problem: UpTurnships was poised to place 40-45 interns across businesses in the Twin Cities during the summer of 2020, but over the last 15 days of March, as the shutdowns from COVID-19 started to take effect, 75% of those positions were eliminated and the internships were canceled.  

The Pivot: UpTurnships reimagined the types of experiences they could give students. They decided to: 1) Pilot a new project-based internship program; 2) Embrace a new learning management system (LMS); 3) Significantly increase the ongoing training opportunities for participants throughout the summer; and 4) Assign a subject matter expert (SME) to each intern in the pilot program to guide them. 

Why this is awesome: I love this pivot for a few reasons:

ADJUST – BUT DON’T STOP. Even though 75% of the internships fell through initially, UpTurnships was able to salvage the other 25% (plus add a few more partner companies over the last two months). They will be able to provide meaningful internship experiences for almost two dozen students this summer. But they have also taken the time to…

ACCELERATE TOOL EVALUATION. UpTurnships was looking at onboarding a new LMS software suite anyway, but the sudden shift that forced EVERYTHING online accelerated that timeline significantly. They also became crystal clear on the need to find one that really focuses on online adult learning, as many of the tools are geared toward traditional educational systems and supporting traditional classroom learning. This has given them the ability to…

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DOUBLE DOWN ON TRAINING. Before COVID-19 hit, UpTurnships was planning four Lunch & Learn opportunities for students, but participation was limited to whoever could make it to their physical location that day. In this new world of Zoom/Skype/Hangouts, suddenly more people are able to participate (and more people are available to give presentations), so they literally doubled their offerings to a total of eight Lunch & Learns and a new training program on virtual interviews. In addition, each student in the pilot program has an SME (from their field) as a resource and to help guide students through some of their project work when they have questions (not to do the work, but how to use certain tools, identify relevant resources, etc.). In some ways, this augmentation of the program may have created…   

A BETTER MOUSETRAP? A summer with 4-5 different types of projects is actually an amazing way for the participants to discern what types of work they like (and more importantly, don’t like) in their field. Let’s face it – the ability to truly “test drive” a job or a type of work is rare in the professional world, and too many people do not realize their new job is not a great fit for them until it’s too late (hence the 71% attrition after the first year). In some ways, this type of experience can be more informative and developmental than spending 8-12 weeks on a single project.

Now, I personally believe there are still benefits to the traditional internship model and that it will return (once we all figure out how to coexist in physical spaces again), but UpTurnships may have created an even better internship experience that could continue on a parallel path with a larger audience. Which brings us to…

ABILITY TO SCALE UpTurnships has really focused on the Twin Cities market to date, where the majority of their resources (volunteers, partner companies, students) reside. They had been hoping to expand into new markets soon, but the sudden shift to virtual project work opens up a world of opportunities for both students and companies outside the Twin Cities without having to set up a physical presence elsewhere. 

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For example, students at the Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (where the unemployment rate is 90%) – who would never have had the resources to spend a summer in the Twin Cities for internships – could now have UpTurnships professional experiences and training without ever leaving their homes in South Dakota. 

Although many businesses are struggling with the uncertainty of when and how they will reopen, a lot of non-profits (which are not known for having deep cash reserves to begin with) are seriously, seriously struggling right now due to a lack of volunteers, closure of facilities, funding sources drying up, etc. But UpTurnships has shown how any organization being forced to rethink the delivery of its core services can lead to more efficiency, better systems, and set up an organization for growth and expansion for the future. 

H/T to Julie and the team at UpTurnships for their efforts! BTW, if you are working with a company interested in learning more about how you might participate with UpTurnships in the future, I’m sure they’d love to hear from you!

Stay safe! Stay positive! Enjoy the summer! 

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