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April 2005 issue

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Standing apart

Language plus work experience programmes are becoming an increasingly prominent feature of the language travel market today. With intense competition for employment in many countries, overseas work experience, through either unpaid internships, paid jobs or volunteer positions in another country, is a valuable extra on a student's CV. Gillian Evans provides an overview of the sector.

Employment trends have been the main impetus behind the widespread desire among students for work experience opportunities in another country. Churchill House School of English Language in the UK launched its work experience programme for overseas students at a time of high unemployment in Europe and, therefore, intense competition for jobs among graduates. ''Students wanted to turn their [language] stay in the UK into a more work-related affair, to give them the competitive edge when compiling their CV over other candidates, who might not necessarily be able to boast work experience in a foreign country,'' explains Alexandra Fletcher at the school.

This reason for students taking a work experience programme remains as relevant today as in the past. Such programmes are particularly popular with Americans, Europeans and Latin Americans, and, according to agents from these regions, they generally make up between four and nine per cent of their total bookings - as documented in our regular Agency Surveys.

A competitive employment market at home has also fuelled demand for work experience programmes from some Asian nationalities, according to Geoff Butler of Mount Maunganui Language Centre in New Zealand. ''Increased competition for jobs in countries like Japan, Thailand and Korea... has led to an increase in those enquiring about study plus work experience, with the aim of getting a better job when they return,'' he says. Indeed, the Korean government is also expanding an internship programme in a bid to alleviate youth unemployment.

Types of work experience
There are three distinct sub-sectors within work experience: unpaid work, paid work and volunteer programmes (see boxes). Although there is some overlap between each type of work placement, Duncan Cameron, Director of the UK-based work provider, LAF, gives a general definition of paid and unpaid positions. ''Unpaid positions are designed to provide professional experience and language improvement for students in professional areas related to their studies, experience and future plans. Paid placements provide a cultural and linguistic experience in a non-professional environment for [those who] want to speak better English.'' There are some exceptions, such as CI-Central de Intercambio in Brazil, which organises paid internships, while the unpaid positions are typically volunteering in ''projects for community development, social causes, environmental protection and teaching,'' says Andrea Garutti.

Whichever type of work experience students choose, they all enrich their CVs for their future career. Referring to voluntary work,

Nicki Ridout, UK Marketing and Publicity Officer at Gap Activity Projects in the UK, explains, ''We find many young people are lacking the life skills and work experience that employers desire and that makes them stand out from their contemporaries. Our voluntary work placements offer the opportunity to enhance CVs as well as gain maturity and a global understanding.'' The company also has a Business Partnership Scheme, which, according to Ridout, ''puts graduates in touch with leading graduate recruiters who value the skills they have gained'' whilst on a volunteer placement.

Length of stay
While the trend in many other sectors of the language travel market has been towards shorter courses, the experience of most work placement providers has been the opposite. In the paid work sector, the opportunity of earning some money while studying in the country often allows students to stay longer. But even in the unpaid sector, the average length of stay has risen in recent years. According to Gayle Empson-Wagner at Cultural Homestay International in the USA, most of their students now enrol on programmes of between 12 and 18 months. Almendra Staffa-Healey at Tandem in Spain suggests reasons behind this increase. ''[Companies] are coming to realise that the more time the student interns for them, the more they can give to him or her, and the more they can expect in return.''

Keith Locker of Eagle UK Work Experience Programme stresses the advantages of a longer placement. ''Because there is little benefit for a company that accepts a short-stay student - six-to-eight weeks - the placements tend to be more involved with routine day-to-day operations, whereas somebody staying six months is able to get their teeth into more interesting and meaningful projects.''

Quality and expectations
The work placement, as the main component of the language programme, can be the make-or-break of a successful experience for the student. It is sometimes hard for agents and schools to ensure the quality of the placement as much is dependant on the employers themselves. Ueli Stauffer of Geos Cairns College of English in Australia says, ''I expect from an employer that they allocate a certain time per day for training purposes. It should be give and take - both parties should be aware of this.''

But not all schools take such an interest in the placement. In the UK, the growth of the work experience sector has meant an influx of new providers, claims Shane Wilkinson, Managing Director of Bournemouth Business School International. ''A number of players have entered the bottom end of the market providing very cheap and unmonitored placements. Such practices don't help anybody,'' he says.

Staffa-Healey in Spain believes that the European Union (EU) funded schemes, although useful in helping market growth, may be jeopardising the reputation of schools in this market segment. ''I think the EU is doing great things to promote internship and work placement programmes. The Leonardo Da Vinci Mobility Projects are fantastic for this. However, there should also be a focus on quality, and the EU should take time to control what is being offered as an internship programme,'' she says.

For the agent's part, Karel Klusak of Intact agency in the Czech Republic says it is important to ensure that students have realistic expectations of their placement. ''Agencies have to educate the potential customers about the shape of the product, its limitations and conditions,'' he states.

For these reasons, work placement programmes are certainly no quick money-spinners for language schools or agents keen to establish and ensure their continued good reputation in the field. For schools, dealing with visas, regulatory issues and finding quality placements means work experience programmes are hard work, especially those who arrange the employment for the students themselves. Wilkinson says, ''We run [work experience programmes] for the benefit of our students, but it is unprofitable because it is time-consuming and labour-intensive.''

High demand
Nevertheless, student demand for courses combining language learning with work experience is skyrocketing, and in many cases, it is outstripping supply. ''[The paid work experience programme] is certainly a growth area for us,'' confirms Francis Crossen at the Dublin School of English in Ireland. ''However, due to the nature of our courses - whereby we guarantee a job offer - capacity is limited. As a result, the numbers attending the courses are increasing at a modest rate while demand is enormous.''

Although a healthy market sector, work experience programmes are among the most sensitive to regulatory changes. In recent years, many governments have taken measures to make it harder for foreign nationals to work in their countries to curb the number of economic migrants and illegal immigrants, but this often also affects students who want to participate in a work experience programme. As a consequence, some providers remain cautious of the future, forecasting growth only if visa regulations are amended. But market forces indicate a constant demand for work placements in the

foreseeable future, regulations notwithstanding. As Staffa-Healey observes, ''Companies are hiring more and more young employees with previous work experience, so I think that if you do not have [this], it is going to be increasingly hard to secure the better jobs.''

Regulations - a thorny issue
Cameron at LAF acknowledges that ''visa regulations exclude many groups who would like to do [work experience] programmes'' and this is a problem faced by many schools and placement providers throughout the world. In New Zealand, Glenda Brighouse at Waiariki Institute of Technology reports, ''It is very difficult to obtain visas to conduct these types of programmes and our diplomatic posts have to be confident that there will not be a threat of non-compliance by participants so it means more paperwork for us and more reconfirming that participants will comply with visa regulations.''

Private language schools in New Zealand are at a distinct disadvantage to state providers, as student visa holders studying at private institutions are not permitted to take on paid work. ''The government needs to make all international students on student visas eligible for part-time work,'' asserts Butler. ''At the moment it is restricted to students who are studying towards a degree only.''

Some schools believe the visa issuance problem lies in the fact that many visa issuing officers worldwide do not understand the concept of work experience. ''There is a great deal of confusion in this area, with government departments at odds with each other, due to a failure to understand the product,'' states Wilkinson in the UK. Schools in the USA face similar problems. ''After [September 11 2001], it became very difficult for our [internship training programme] participants,'' recounts Empson-Wagner. ''Some consulates became more irrational in their requirements. Our experience is that most consulates do not understand the training programme, so they tend to deny applicants without cause.''

In Australia, Diana Pilling at Australian Internships believes their tight but transparent visa regulations have, in many ways, helped the market. ''Stringent visa regulations have had both a positive and negative effect on internship numbers,'' she says. ''The introduction of new regulations has streamlined the application process increasing the success rate of applications.'' However, ''Currently the visa regulations restrict interns transferring from and to certain visas [once in the country]. A change in this regulation would enable the work placement market to expand further.''

The current proposal to tighten student work rights in Ireland, however, could be a blow to the work placement industry in this country. Up until now, all students in Ireland have been allowed to work part-time for up to 20 hours a week. This right to work, says Crossen, ''has been of great assistance to us in selling [our paid work experience] programme.'' However, from mid-April this year, international students from countries outside the European Economic Area (EEA) may only be permitted to work part-time in Ireland if they are studying for at least a year and working towards a recognised higher education qualification (see Language Travel Magazine, March 2005, page 6). This move was in a bid to curb visa overstays, but Crossen brands it ''ill thought-out and poorly implemented''. Currently, MEI~Relsa is hopeful that there will be an amendment to these proposals to include accredited English language schools.

Visa restrictions can have a catastrophic effect on this sector of the market and most sources believe that this is the one of the weakest links to its continued growth in the future. Many schools call on their country's government to understand the work experience sector better and recognise the benefits that it can bring. Fletcher from Churchill House School of English Language in the UK says, ''Government needs to show a much greater understanding of the contributions to the UK economy made by work experience students. The UK labour market has serious shortage areas and the language school sector could contribute in part to filling these.''


Unpaid work

The most important area for many schools operating in the work placement sector has been unpaid work experience or internships for a number of reasons: the work positions are usually directly related to a student's field of studies or future career aspirations; and it is usually easier to secure visa entrance for such programmes and is therefore open to more nationalities.

Most schools and work placement providers can match students up with all manner of different positions. GLS in Germany has placed students in media companies, law firms and even the German Parliament, says Dorothee Robrecht, Director of PR and Marketing at the school. In Ireland, Francis Crossen at the Dublin School of English says, ''In the past we have placed people in diverse areas such as finance and banking, marketing, administrative offices, as well as in IT at Microsoft, at the Garda/Irish Police and in the Irish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly.''

According to Katy Creswick, Assistant Manager at CEI - The French Centre in the UK, the most popular placement areas are business and marketing. ''This has remained the same over the years, as it is the areas where the students will need to use English in their future jobs,'' she says.

Other providers have seen a shift in demand for certain jobs as their language becomes more important in international business. ''I have noticed that I am receiving more internship requests in the arts and in journalism,'' observes Almendra Staffa-Healey at Tandem in Spain. ''I think Spanish is gaining as a foreign language and this is causing people to invest time in learning it within their particular field.''

Some institutions support overseas universities, which require graduates to undertake work experience as part of their degree. Waiariki Institute of Technology in New Zealand has been offering English plus hospitality management internships and work placements since 1998. ''We had frequent requests from agents and students to operate an English plus hospitality management experience to provide students studying hospitality in their home country a practical job experience,'' relates Glenda Brighouse at the institute.


Paid placements

While paid work placements may not be as vocational as unpaid positions, they are nonetheless highly popular in today's marketplace. ''[Our paid programme] is loosely aimed at the budget end of the market,'' says Francis Crossen at the Dublin School of English in Ireland. ''The work is paid and is generally in the service industry - bars, hotels, restaurants, etc.'' Similarly, Erin Nyhan, Programme Supervisor at the Center for Cultural Interchange (CCI) in the USA says, ''For CCI programmes, the paid positions with the work and travel programmes tend to be more in the hospitality industry.''

Many sources report that most growth is currently occurring in this paid work experience sector and, as a consequence, many new programmes are being launched. For example, St Giles, which has schools in the UK and the USA, currently arranges unpaid work placements but, according to Clare Montgomery, the school is ''considering adding paid placements to our provision in the near future''. In Spain, Don Quijote has complemented its unpaid work experience programme with a new paid work experience programme. ''Offering a Spanish course plus [paid] work placement programme allows even [budget] students to gain the Spanish skills necessary to pass the interviews we set up for them, land a job in the Costa del Sol, and support themselves while they stay on in Spain,'' comments Erin Corcoran at Don Quijote.

Although paid jobs are attractive to many students, particularly those studying on a tight budget, the enlargement last year of the European Union (EU) has boosted demand for such programmes from new EU members. As Karel Klusak of Intact agency in the Czech Republic states, ''For most students it is essential that they get a paid job while they are abroad, since Czech prices and salaries are much below the British or [standard] EU level.''

Duncan Cameron at LAF in the UK confirms this trend has emerged since the enlargement of the EU. ''Paid [positions] are most popular at the moment with new EU nationalities,'' he asserts. ''May 1 2004 brought in a whole new group of paid participants.''


Volunteering

Volunteer placements offer students the chance to work in a field often unrelated to their studies or future or present careers. Nicki Ridout at Gap Activity Projects in the UK - which places students on volunteer programmes throughout the world - says that, among British students, placements teaching English as a second language remain popular, and there is growing demand for more unusual projects like working with animals and coaching sports. ''I believe this can be attributed to a desire to do something completely different on a gap year [taken between leaving high school and starting university] and more opportunities are available to do this type of project now than previously,'' she says.

In New Zealand, working on an organic farm is a popular choice among students. ''Because working on a New Zealand farm is deemed attractive, there never seems to be a shortage of students wanting to do this for no return payment. Living with a New Zealand farming family is part of the attraction,'' explains Mary-Rose Blackley at Taupo Language and Outdoor Education Centre in New Zealand. The centre also arranges other volunteer positions, such as working in the Tongariro Park. ''This year [students] are encouraging the native bird species and eradicating the rat and stoat population,'' says Blackley, who adds that such placements are popular with Japanese and Europeans.

Diana Pilling at Australian Internships in Australia also says that their volunteer programmes attract a high proportion of Europeans. She puts this down to the fact that ''volunteer placements are strongly respected within the European workforce''.

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