Seen as an invaluable embellishment to anyone’s CV, volunteer programmes, unpaid internships and paid work experience placements have become must-haves for most students embarking upon the world of work. According to Timothy Wells of Internex International Exchange in Canada, participant numbers for all work programmes have increased as a direct result of the lack of opportunities in the employment market.
“Paid programmes have been popular for candidates from regions where there has been an economic downturn, but so have unpaid internship and volunteer programmes as candidates try to wait out the downturn and not take positions that are clearly for the purposes of making money, which may cause future employers concern with their career path,” he says.
Hien Thach at Cross Cultural Solutions in the USA, which organises volunteer placements, agrees with the trends observed by Wells. “In recent years, we’re finding more students volunteering abroad as a resume boost,” she says. “A lot of employers want candidates with international experience.”
Interestingly, it is not just university and college-age students who are seizing opportunities to gain work experience overseas, but also older clients. “We are seeing increases in professional people taking a work break and retired people going away with us,” comments Moya Cutts at Volunteer Africa in the UK.
Dale Moore, Information Manager at the Tellus Group in the UK reports similar trends. “Demand has grown steadily over the past few years,” he recounts. “One of the reasons is undoubtedly the economic downturn which has affected many young people who are trying to get a foothold in the job market.” Like Cutts, Moore says they have started seeing an increase in older participants “who have suffered as a consequence of economic decline across Europe”.
For volunteer placement organisation, Lattitude Global Volunteering in the UK, the difficult employment market has been something of a double-edged sword. “On one hand the global economic situation has hampered growth in the sector as young people feel the pressure to get a paying job as soon as possible after leaving school or university,” says Stephanie Wright. “On the other hand, many young people see our volunteering placements as an investment for the future, and come to us seeking valuable work experience that they cannot find elsewhere,” she adds.
Unpaid internships, paid work experience placements and volunteer programmes all offer a multitude of benefits to study abroad students. “The attraction of a work placement is that it offers participants the opportunity to try a different area of work while at the same time providing real world English language experience,” comments Moore. “Good English language skills continue to be seen as a valuable commodity and greatly increase participants’ prospects in an increasingly competitive workplace in their own countries,” he asserts.
Even if the work is not in the student’s field of career interest, the experience is nonetheless valuable, as highlighted by Ron Hernandez at Interexchange Work & Travel in the USA, which organises paid work placements in the USA in companies that require supplementary staff during peak business periods. “Throughout the programme, visiting students and their host employers are engaged in a cultural exchange, wherein students are immersed in American culture and learn about the country’s customs and business practices,” he explains.
Gapforce in the UK organises volunteer and internship placements in Ecuador, Peru, Nepal, Fiji, France and Ghana. Marcus Watts, Gapforce’s Managing Director, notes a trend towards the more career-development type programme. “The work-based internship placements we offer, like working at a criminal court or helping a grass roots community journalism project [both in Ghana], are growing as much as teaching and building programmes.”
While gaining relevant work experience is attractive to many, the cost of an internship or volunteer placement may be prohibitive. This is where paid work placements could be the ideal choice, asserts Diana Pilling at Australian Internships in Australia, which specialises in unpaid professional internships in a number of different industry sectors including accounting, banking and finance and media and journalism, but also organises paid internships in the hugely popular hospitality industry. “There is growing interest in the various paid [work] programmes and much of the interest is generated due to the changed economic situation. Students are looking to use this time to gain international experience for those countries where there is an economic crisis, they would like the opportunity to earn money while gaining experience.” However, she adds, “The issue remains that the main focus for an internship is training in the workplace and not a back door entry to employment.”
Demand for internships, paid work placements overseas and volunteer programmes looks set to continue to climb. Moore comments, “It seems likely that demand for unpaid work placements will continue to increase as people constantly seek to gain experiences and improve their career and job prospects. There is still little confidence in the European economic situation, so people of all ages and nationalities will do whatever they can to remain active in the job market.”
In addition, a more diverse range of participants are likely to be drawn to the volunteer sector. Vaibhav Syal at Idex, a company which offers volunteering programmes in India and Nepal, notes, “We foresee a very bright future for volunteering, as one of the most sought after tourist products. Not only youth groups, but grown-ups, teenagers and families will take it up to explore a new way of travelling.”
As Hernandez concludes, “Everyone around the world is always eager to get more high quality cross-cultural experience.” And what better way to achieve this than through working in another country.
A question of exploitation?
Despite the buoyancy of the overseas work placement sector, negative publicity has caused concern. Hershey’s in the USA, for instance, recently hit headlines for paying international students working in warehouses less than the minimum wage (see STM, February 2013, page 8).
Diana Pilling at Australian Internships in Australia emphasises that international hospitality interns are paid the same amount as their Australian counterparts, and most providers say they constantly liaise with the companies they organise internships with to ensure quality standards, including Anne Reinke at UK-based ASB Internship Solutions providing internships for EU clients in London-based companies in fields such as fashion and finance.
Another bone of contention is that some businesses allegedly use unpaid interns for cheap labour. UK media reports suggest that employees at some companies are made redundant, only to be replaced by a steady stream of unpaid interns. The legality of interns in the UK not being paid the minimum wage has also been questioned, but Reinke believes that if wages were introduced it could seriously damage work experience availability. “Internships are a great way to gain work experience and it should not be sloped only on financial basis, especially because the EU for example [often] gives grants,” she says. Although interns would undoubtedly welcome wages, it would mean smaller companies which often offer interns more responsibility wouldn’t be able to afford to offer such work experience, she argues.
“If it is [work], the student should be paid as per the wage guidelines. An internship, on the other hand, is structured and supervised training so the focus is on the training,” says Pilling. However, she adds that hospitality interns organising placements through her company are paid because they stay and benefit the organisation for a long time. “However, they must still... develop their skills or the role becomes a job rather than an internship,” she says.