March 2012 issue

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Work experience

With job markets becoming increasingly competitive in the global recession, a period of overseas work experience is more valuable than ever. Jane Vernon Smith reports on the trends within this growing sector.

Motivated by personal development to fund overseas travel and/or language learning, or a desire to enhance their resume and better their future employment prospects, increasingly, in today’s competitive global environment, young people are looking for foreign work experience and internships.

However, different objectives are best served by different means. One question any candidate should ask themselves from the outset is whether their needs will best be met by work experience that is paid or unpaid. While it may seem self-evident that to be paid is better than to be unpaid, the reality is not so straightforward, as Timothy Wells of Canada-based INTERNeX International Exchange, points out.

Students undertaking a work experience placement as a requirement of a university course, for example, should bear in mind that, “Paid programmes are based nearly exclusively on the needs of the host, and there is very little room for negotiation on the part of the candidate...and the placement cannot be ‘sculpted’ to the needs of the candidate (or the university), as it can with unpaid opportunities.” Meanwhile, universities worldwide are beginning to focus heavily on the content of the placement, he notes, and seeking “meaningful, outcome-driven placement opportunities” for their students. The advantage of unpaid internships is that they can be tailored to the needs of each individual candidate.

Paid work experience placements, meanwhile, tend to be found overwhelmingly in the hospitality and customer services sectors, according to Wells, and should not generally be considered for career advancement, he says, unless the candidate plans to work in one of these fields as a career.

Paid placements
Paid placements provide not only a way for students to support their studies, but also a great opportunity to practise and improve their language skills, as Inma Sánchez, Managing Director of Spanish study travel consultancy, Choices International, highlights. “They can be excellent for the flexible candidate looking to subsidise their trip abroad through earning a salary,” adds Wells. One cannot expect to earn a lot,” he underlines, “but a sufficient amount to enjoy the [place] they work in. Paid positions are also a great way to participate fully in the culture of the country, and make lots of friends.”

According to Caroline Norris, International Sales & Marketing Officer at UK-based Skola Group, the fragile economic situation within the European Union is currently fuelling demand for paid study and work programmes. In the US, the Center for Cultural Interchange and Greenheart (CCI) is continuing to see great demand from Eastern Europe for its work & travel programmes, says Work Programs Administrative Relations Manager, Melissa Hickok. Meanwhile, Canada-based INTERNeX has seen a levelling of demand for paid hospitality programmes, according to Wells, as demand has risen in some regions, but dissipated in others. However, in contrast to the situation in some other markets, he has seen the supply of paid positions increase markedly, as the local economy rebounds.

In terms of unpaid placements, according to Letitia Hatanaka at Travellers Worldwide, demand has grown very quickly in the UK, having increased by possibly as much as 100 per cent over the past four years, fuelled by graduates unable to get work without experience. While talk of paid, professional internships has been dampened of late by the impact of the financial crisis, according to Wells, he notes “a marked increase” in interest in unpaid internship programmes – both intra- and extra-curricular. He especially highlights “a dramatic increase in the interest for accredited, content-driven internship programmes”, arising from changes in higher education.

Monitoring demand
In Australia, too, at Australian Internships, Managing Director Diana Pilling has seen greater demand for internships over recent years, with growth in the region of 10-to-12 per cent. China, India and Latin America – Colombia in particular – have been at the forefront of this increase, while Germany continues to find a place in the top five source nationalities, she observes.

As Pilling points out, demand can be strongly influenced by government policy, with changes in the occupations that are eligible to apply for Australian permanent residency being reflected in demand for work placements. Special initiatives – such as the Skilled Migration Internship Programme in Accounting – also play a key role in determining client preferences, she notes, as well as scholarship programmes and projects, such as the Global Human Capital Project in Japan.

However, internships are sought and provided across virtually all fields of work. At Professionals UK, there has been no particular change in areas requested. According to Managing Director, Karen Bowring, “We are still being asked for anything from car mechanic to legal assistant, ceramics assistant to engineering.” One change observed by James Johnston at Practigo in Germany, is a rise in the number of highly qualified clients wanting suitable placements in areas such as architecture and engineering. As Hatanaka underlines, “People want specialised areas of study,” and to meet this need, Travellers Worldwide is able to tailor-make internships for each candidate.

Media-based programmes continue to be popular, and CCI has recently begun offering internship/trainee programmes in arts & culture and information media & communications. Another interesting development is a new internship with a stipend being launched by Australian Internships for French students from certain universities completing their stage (required work experience), while fellow Australian provider, Professional Pathways Australia (a division of Monash University) recently introduced a gap-year internship programme for high school leavers, whose purpose, according to spokesperson Nejka Pintaric, “is to offer young travellers a gap year with substance, and the chance to improve their career and/or study prospects when they return home.”

For students whose language skills are not quite up to the required level, some language schools offer work experience programmes alongside or following a period of language tuition. Spain’s Malaca Instituto, for example, offers unpaid placements for a minimum three months’ duration. “We offer [these] only in conjunction with a language course,” says the school’s Natascha Kaviratna. “We think four weeks is the minimum, but we recommend more, depending on the student’s level, the type of internship requested and the duration. In general, we require a level equivalent to having completed B2 [of the CEFR].”

Managing expectations
In seeking to marry candidates to appropriate placements, the job of providers is not always easy. “We spend a lot of time and money managing expectations,” comments Johnston. “We have had many applications from school leavers wanting placements in management, without actually realising what this entails and that it isn’t really a possibility. Once we explain that they have to be willing to accept a more general field of work in order to gain invaluable work experience abroad, this is usually no problem. Once a client settles in to work at a company, they tend to realise the gains that this experience will give them.

“Certain fields of work are always hard to organise, and can even be difficult for clients with work experience and/or a relevant university degree,” he adds. Therefore, flexibility over destination is always advisable. However, “If someone is determined to do a placement in a certain city, then they may have to rethink the field of work in which they would like to be placed.”

According to Intern UK’s Programme Director, Stuart Blake, one common mistake made by prospective interns is to go for blue chip companies at all costs. “Having a famous name on their CV may initially look promising to a prospective employer, but, if the role involved offered little responsibility and didn’t stretch the intern’s abilities, then it has actually achieved very little,” he points out. “[On the other hand],” he says, “an intern who has been involved in really contributing to their host company, will invariably still be enthusing about their placement at an interview.”

It is always worth bearing in mind that, as Hatanaka points out, “Doing work experience, overseas especially, gives confidence, not just in a field of work, but in the human being and their personal development. Meeting new people, managing alone and experiencing a new culture, shows huge levels of motivation, courage and organisation. I think this is what future employers appreciate,” she underlines, as much as the hands-on experience within the industry in question. It’s the life-experience gained that has the lingering effect.”

The right candidate for the job

Ensuring the suitability of candidates for their preferred placements plays a major part in the success or otherwise of the experience, both for themselves and for their employers. Therefore, most companies ask candidates to undergo a rigorous vetting procedure.

The form this takes may vary. For example, for internship/trainee placements at US-based CCI, “We have a stringent screening process, including CV review, scheduled interview with the host organisation and then an additional interview with CCI staff. Applicants must also provide reference letters and proof of university status or degree upon programme application,” comments spokesperson Melissa Hickok. Meanwhile, for work & travel programmes, she says, “We rely on our network of overseas sending partners to assist with screening our applicants and ensuring they are prepared for their...programme and are suitable for their placements.” The organisation also takes part in job fairs, where candidates can be interviewed either in person or virtually by their potential employer.

One of the major requirements of a work placement overseas is an adequate command of the language, and some organisations specify a minimum level as a basic requirement for consideration. Australian internship specialist, Australian Internships, asks for Ielts 6.0, and, in common with increasing numbers of organisations, “We Skype all applicants prior to accepting them into the programme,” explains Managing Director, Diana Pilling. Any students falling short of the required standard are advised that they must undertake English classes.

Skype interviews take around 30 minutes, she explains, and help the interviewer to assess candidates’ requests, gain more understanding of their priorities and really build on the information already provided in their resume, letter of objectives and academic transcripts. Candidates are also required to take part in interviews with the host organisation prior to any final placement arrangements, and, says Pilling, both the host and the candidate have an opportunity to discuss their priorities and assess suitability.

Timothy Wells of Canada’s INTERNeX International Exchange also highlights the use of the vetting process not only to assess suitability, but also to ensure that expectations are appropriate, based on the candidate’s specific background. “The process is designed to provide absolutely realistic information to the participant...as to what to expect for a placement, about their specific industry in Canada or New Zealand, what life is like on location, and how to effectively prepare for the interview,” he explains.

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English Australia  
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MEI Ireland  
Perth Education City  
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Language Studies International  
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F+U Academy of Languages  

Dr Walter  
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IRELAND English Language Academy ELA  
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Bell International  
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Good Hope Studies  

International House - Sevilla CLIC  
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EF International Language Centers  
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Malta Tourism Authority  
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