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Get to know a Toronto startup: SpringTern

Posted by Jonathon Muzychka / February 11, 2013

toronto startup springternWith over 31,000 hours of your life spent studying or sitting in class, you would think that all of your hard work as a student would logically lead to securing a high paying job. After graduating in Canada, it's estimated that one in three grads will end up in a low-skilled job. Add that to the ever mounting student debt and the odds are definitely not in your favor once you graduate. Trying to find a way to get ahead, students have been turning to sites like SpringTern to stand out.

SpringTern is a website that connects students with small businesses, start-ups and non-profits to complete volunteer work projects. This benefits both sides, by offering students the opportunity to get real work experience, and providing resources to companies that could use some extra help.

I met up with Ben Wise, one of the co-founders of SpringTern, to get his overview on how SpringTern is trying to help recent grads break into the workforce.

Where did the idea behind SpringTern come from?

The idea for SpringTern came from a combination of personal experiences. Going back 10 years to when I was an undergrad student, like many of my classmates at the time, I struggled to get my first job because I had no real experience. Apparently working as a summer camp counselor isn't very impressive to managers at big companies.

Since joining the workforce, I've had the good fortune of working with a lot of great student interns and have been continually impressed at how motivated and capable they are. So I could see the need from both sides, where students are trying desperately to break into the professional world, and small organizations can greatly benefit from their help. It made sense to me to try to bring those two sides together, and that's how SpringTern came to be.

How does SpringTern actually work?

The website itself is straightforward and works in a similar way to a traditional job board, but with a focus on short-term projects that can be done remotely. As a company looking for some student help, you create a company profile and submit your work-project to our public listings page through the online form. This is like a regular job description, where they set out the expectations of what the project will require and when it needs to be completed.

Students simply browse through the project listings on our site and apply to any that offer the type of work experience they are looking for.

Once a company and student connect, it's left to them to manage the project in a way the works best for their specific needs.

Who pays for the service? Or is it free for everyone?

It costs $45 for companies to post a project listing on SpringTern, while non-profits get a reduced rate of $25. We also offer bulk discounts and free credits for referring other organizations to the site. At the same time, SpringTern is completely free for students.

Who do you feel is SpringTern's biggest competition?

There are a lot of sites out there that target students with career resources and traditional internship opportunities. This includes other Toronto-based companies like TalentEgg and CareerLeaf, multinational giants like LinkedIn and Monster, and local career counselors at universities and colleges across the country. But we believe that our focus on short-term, remote projects offers a unique proposition to both companies and students. In fact, many of these organizations see the value of our unique approach and are willing to partner with SpringTern to help their users take advantage of this extra service.

Why would companies use SpringTern instead of one of these other sites?

Many companies don't have the need or the resources to bring on a full-time intern. SpringTern gives these companies an easy way to get the help they need for a specific project. Also, since most projects on SpringTern are done remotely, companies don't need to go through the hassle of setting someone up onsite and are able to tap into a much larger talent pool.

There seems to be fairly passionate opposition against the "unpaid intern" or "work for free" mentality. What's your stance on the whole debate?

This is a very tricky debate and I don't think there is a clear 'right' answer. Whatever you may think of it, the reality is that lots of companies offer full-time internships (i.e. 9-5 for 3-4 months) that are unpaid and students regularly take on these roles in order to gain work experience. In some industries it is almost expected that entry-level employees have done one or more unpaid internships as part of 'paying their dues.'

But, given the financial hardships that most students face with the rising cost of tuition, taking an unpaid internship is an awful lot to ask of them. I think this is actually one of the advantages of SpringTern. While the roles are unpaid, they are generally pretty short so that students can get that professional experience they need to break into the workforce full-time, without volunteering too much of their time.

What are the next steps for SpringTern? Any big plans you can share?

I know a lot of startups talk about getting investment and new funding rounds, but our priority is really just to reach more and more users. We think we offer a service that solves a real need on both sides - small business that need help to get more done and students that need real world work experience.

Over the next 12 months, we will be focusing on making as many people as possible aware of SpringTern as an option to overcome these challenges. As long as we're able to reach more users and make them happy, then I have confidence that success from a business perspective will follow.



Jentl / February 11, 2013 at 09:06 am
I applaud assisting grads to get experience in an associated industry, but this idea is as old as employment itself. I am not convinced most reputable and distinguished companies (if that's what you want) really value grassroots internship programs, unless they're desperate. Though many charitable organizations and government agencies do (if that's what you want). As someone who finished top 5 in their engineering class and went to grad school, I have really had a hard time finding stuff in TO. I have learned this stuff the hard way.
The best way to break in is to be able to relocate anywhere (anywhere!) with little notice - whether that's the middle of the prairies, the arctic, 3rd world country, etc., and go to a company known for that specific industry in that area - the big fish in the little pond - especially important for semi-artsy programs such as journalism, architecture, and graphic design.
Europe and the UK is way better at this because several companies either have official grad track programs and outsource their less profitable projects to up-and-coming mini-firms (usually filled with low-ish paid intern/grads) - such as industrial buildings and competitions for engineers/ architects and mundane tech writing to journalists. My point is that the internship programs should establish relationships with established companies and outsource (insource) some their less risky, more mundane projects at a great cost reduction to their own inhouse staff. That's the break-in. Network and find someone senior to mentor within.
The big problem of course is the job marketplace and the attitudes of grads (so i am told and have seen). Gone are the time where companies would over-recruit and then just discard/ let stagnate low-performing grads. At least you got experience, even if you only lasted 6 months. Not so much anymore. More money directed at top staff and less money at R&D and junior staff development means fewer grads in, even though universities have been churning out piles for years. Also, head-hunters have accumulated their own favourite lists (half quality, half networked friends - so corrupt) Also, there has been a co-operative and internship back-lash from employers in the last 5-10 years. Complaints about the non-business like attitude and activist values of new grads/upper year co-ops have crushed opportunity. Universities like Ryerson and Waterloo have noted huge drops in companies offering co-op due to low student personality acceptability. Many engineers in my network have stated the same - they don't want the attitude or low enthusiasm/grunt work resistance. I half blame the companies for not knowing how to deal with Millenials, but I have seen some real 'party' departments that have to be completely cut due to what started as a morale booster became a tarnish to clients and senior staff. Only a serious paradign shift will fix this - to actually give that proportion of the graduating class the job they deserve - not the top few. Addressing the associations of many of these professions may help. I'd hate to be a new grad these days.
Rob / February 11, 2013 at 09:10 am
I think you're seeing bounce back at a co-op level because students are wise to the fact that they're doing a bunch of shit for free that grads got paid for fifty years ago. They're not stupid. They know companies are sitting on record profits, yet grads are expected to do much more for less, or even free.
Yibnr / February 11, 2013 at 09:37 am
Yah. There are no heroes in this. When I was a grad in 2000, the seniors would bust us drill-seargeant-like until we either broke and left or became completely brain-washed. And it wasn't even for noble purposes, they would laugh about their 'minions' at those squash clubs downtown - even taking bets about who would leave. So, when I became middle level and had my own interns, i thought that I would take extra time to get to know my interns and really develop them - not this sit-back mentor nonsense - real apprenticeship. Hands-on. My reward for 3 straight years of this was top-level grads who would sneer and complain - even laugh about how soft i was on them and dis me at the pub up the street on fridays (so i was told). Its not worth it anymore. I hire and cherry-pick through head-hunters mid-level staff now - over-paid but better success ratio. It means we are a top-heavy company and most work 60 hours a week to keep afloat. But I would take that over the toxic workplace that I have been through. I partially blame myself - I probably need to read the personalities better at interviews. Its a shame, but I already have a nagging wife at home. I don't need 2 or 3 more at work. Too bad about corporate culture nowadays - scum above, scum below. Maybe better in mid-size towns?
Skye replying to a comment from Rob / February 11, 2013 at 10:10 am
Exactly. When you have mega-corporations offering non-paying internships, it shows the company expects new grads to put up and shut up.

With the rising cost of living, it's virtually impossible for a new grad to volunteer 40-50 hours a week and still find some way to pay their rent and basic needs (you know, like, food).

Yet, a willingness to work for free somehow means you're talented?

Companies need to get a grip and start paying out.

For the record: I did a four-month internship with an organziation that could only afford to pay me part-time. That was enough for me to get experience AND still earn enough money to cover basic living costs, and yes, that internship enabled me to enter the workforce.
Cyril Sneer / February 11, 2013 at 11:26 am
I do think there's something to this "micro-consulting" model, but the fact that its non-pay is absurd.
Simon replying to a comment from Yibnr / February 11, 2013 at 12:04 pm
... and the ridiculous thing about this new grad abuse (character-building wtf?) is that it just perpetuates intolerant and menacing management later. Beaten kid becomes beating father. The worst are those firms rated as 'Top Young-Employee Firm' or whatever from Macleans. They aren't even given individual cubicles anymore, kind of a work 'trough' where its several tables extending endwise like a dining room setup where you keep elbowing people when you try to function. Small firm, medium town, is best. A couple of small firms told me that they agree with the 'no unpaid intern' thing and are consequently not hiring this year. Yay. So we all lose. Capitalism is gotta go. Any system that allows 10 unemployed painters to go without work when there are 10 paint jobs to be done and no budget is dysfunctional.
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