There is no substitute for actual work experience, and when that work is in a different country and part of a structured language programme, it is undoubtedly a gleaming asset to anyone's set of qualifications. The benefits of such language programmes are manifold. Colin Granlund, Principal of Embassy CES in Brighton in the UK, underlines, 'The aim of our work experience courses is for participants to become more confident and comfortable using English in a professional work environment, gain an insight into the workings of a British or American company in their field of expertise, and improve their employability.'
Work experience programmes generally include either four or more weeks of language tuition followed by a block of work experience of anything from one week upwards, or the language tuition and work can be provided on a part-time basis at the same time. But courses vary widely from one provider to another. At Hermann-Hesse-Kolleg in Germany, the school's Director, Günter Ost, says the work experience programme involves a minimum six-week course of intensive German combined with an 18-lesson internship preparation course, 'a kind of German for professional purposes but customised to the internship placements'.
In the USA, International House (IH) Portland offers three work experience programmes, each suitable for a slightly different type of client, as Dan Augustine of Educational Development International, which arranges the work placements for IH, explains. The first is the volunteer internship, in which students with a relatively low level of English can work with children or the elderly. The second is the business internship for students with a higher level of English 'who are interested in internships in the field of business administration, social welfare, international exchange, the arts, nature conservation and children's education,' says Augustine. For both these programmes, students require an F visa and are not paid for their work. The third type is the international professional training course. 'This internship uses a J-training visa which allows applicants to train in their chosen career field for up to 18 months,' says Augustine. 'The J [visa] programme has been popular because it is the closest thing to work that you can do in the US without a work visa.'
One of the problems of work placement programmes is matching the student's and employer's expectations of the work placement itself. Many agents have stories of students disappointed at paying for a work placement only to find they are making the tea. Sometimes, however, the student's ambitions can be a little too high. 'Students very often would like to do the tasks they want to do in their future dream job, but work experience cannot give students this because, as with a job, work experience also has to fit the requirements of the company,' explains Caroline Fox of Twin English Centres in the UK.
A successful placement should allow a student to interact within a company and gain an insight into how the business operates, while fulfilling tasks which allow them to use different language skills, ideally, alongside varying operational practices.
Oliver Sterland, Director of Studies at London-based Internexus in the UK, says that student expectation can be high, 'especially if the student has very little work experience'. He continues, 'A lot of the priming they get from us prior to the placement involves attitude training. We point out that the more positive and pro-active they appear, the more time their employer will invest in them.'
To iron out any potential problems, there is a lot of paperwork and administration prior to a student's departure on a work experience programme. LAF, which arranges work placements for 15 language schools in the UK, conducts telephone interviews with all students before they arrive to discuss their preferred work areas. Others ask students to provide written information about their motivations and goals.
'We ask the students to describe their expectations and their interests. When the expectations of the student are not realistic, we advise of the possibilities and options for other work experience,' says Fox. 'Each student is discussed individually with the company, and their aims and goals for undertaking the work experience are discussed at length with the company, to ensure a match is made.'
Communication between all those involved is vital to ensure a successful placement. 'We take great care to ensure that all parties involved in this programme - the student, the company, the agent that sent the student, and our coordinator - have the same expectations about the goals and content of the programme,' says Tamsin Paxton of Tamwood Language Institute in Canada.
Agents, for their part, are also important in the pre-departure process. 'We interview every student and make them fill in an application including a CV and a letter of introduction,' says Claire Pimenta de Miranda at Silc in France. 'We then send them to our local partners who make the best match.'
In newer provider markets, such as Italy, it is not only the potential language students that need to be won over but also companies willing to take on work experience candidates. Scuola Toscana in Italy has recently set up an Italian plus work experience programme, and the school's Director, Brunella Casucci Belluomini, says, 'We have to educate the local companies [about providing work placements] because the trend is towards this kind of experience.'
Once a student is placed in a company, the school must ensure that they are happy with their work and the overall experience that they are offered. 'Our work/study coordinator continuously monitors the students and the companies [they are placed with],' says Tim Newton, Principal of Aspect ILA Sydney in Australia. 'At the end of each work placement, we ask companies to fill out a satisfaction survey, and we appraise all students at the end of their internship.'
One of the main stumbling blocks to the growth of the language plus work experience sector of the market has been visa issuance (see above). Nevertheless, the appeal of these courses is spreading. Western Europeans - Spanish, French and German students, in particular - have traditionally shown the most interest in work experience programmes. Now, at St Giles International in the UK, Clare Montgomery reports that it is Italians, Germans and Colombians who favour work placement programmes. Other schools in the UK mention growing demand from Poland, Russia and Asia, while the USA and Canada also attract Latin American students, particularly Brazilians.
In Australia, Newton reports that Western Europeans are most interested in their work programmes. 'This is probably mainly because they tend to study for longer periods of time, usually have a reasonable level of spoken and written English before arriving in the country, and have fewer problems in obtaining the correct visas.'
Among the non-English language programmes, Spain, Brazil, Switzerland, Russia and Poland are good source markets for Hermann-Hesse-Kolleg's work experience course, while German language school, F+U, cites Spaniards, Poles and Russians as its main nationalities. In France, Eleri Maitland of Inlingua Rouen says that is it mainly Asian nationalities that choose to take their course offering work experience in the catering sector, because 'French food is very popular there'. She adds, 'We are now [receiving] more applications from older people who already work in the restaurant and hotel business.'
While tourism and hospitality are popular business areas for students seeking work experience, schools in the UK, USA and Australia also mention strong demand for placements in marketing, IT, and media and communications. Some work placement companies can also accommodate more unusual student requests - Embassy CES in the USA found a placement for a private investigator in a private investigation firm, while LAF managed to find a placement for a veterinary student from Spain who wanted work experience with cattle. But not all work areas are open to overseas students. In Canada, for example, Paxton says, 'Certain fields are not possible, such as teaching in the public schools, medicine and the film industry, due to regulations for the profession and the issues that it would raise with the unions that represent workers in those fields.' Meanwhile, in Australia, Conni Fuerst, Deputy Principal at Cairns Language Centre, reports, 'Changes in legislation concerning working with children have made it impossible to obtain work experience in any area which includes caring for or working with children.'
The length of a work experience programme in Australia is also restricted for student visa holders (those studying on other visas are unaffected). A work/industry experience component is not permitted to make up more than 20 per cent of a course. 'Students are requesting short [language] courses - from four to eight weeks - with long work experience, but this is not [always] available in Australia, due to the regulations,' says Fuerst.
High price to pay?
As all these programmes generally involve a period of language tuition and work placement - for which there is usually an additional fee - they can appear to be relatively expensive. '[The work placement course] may seem expensive, as a lot of students see they pay one fee for a placement - which in their eyes just takes one phone call - but in essence, it gives the students the pathway into UK companies which otherwise they would never find,' states Fox. 'The placement fee [also] includes monitoring each company and each individual placement, progress reporting, the Ucles certificate, assessments of companies and company visits, advice and help with living in the UK plus accommodation services.'
In addition to the perceived high price tag, the fact that the majority of work is unpaid can be viewed as problematic, although some companies may pay students a nominal sum for expenses. While unpaid work experience is well established in some countries, others are less open to the idea. Agent Annette Duerdoch, of Interstudio Viaggi in Italy, says that although demand for internship programmes is steadily increasing, 'Italians still cannot believe they have to pay in order to work'. She adds, 'It will take time for this mentality to change.'
In Brazil, too, True Way agency is facing similar attitudes from customers. 'Unfortunately we haven't had any bookings for the work experience programmes,' laments True Way Director, Marilisa F de Almeida. 'We do have a lot of enquiries about it, but everyone is looking for paid work experience and to work in his or her knowledge area.'
One area of concern for many schools is the quality of the experience. In Germany, Ost says, 'I know that this sector will increase, provided that two things remain constant: [the] German [economy] stays attractive and the language school is able to [continue to offer] quality [placements].'
Duncan Cameron of LAF in the UK points to the danger of sub-standard products in a growing market that is attracting more and more players. 'If the placements are not focused, then clients will be disappointed,' he asserts. A number of organisations are taking steps to ensure quality through the formation of the Global Work Experience Association, which was under discussion at the time of going to press. The association would, according to Fox, 'work to develop a closer working relationship between senders and receivers' of work placement students. The launch of the association is planned to take place at the Fiyto conference this year.
If providers and agents can continue to ensure that students' expectations are met, future growth is almost guaranteed. With time, too, more students will realise the value of work experience, even if they are not paid. As Cleve Brown at Worldwide School of English in New Zealand says, 'The benefit [of work experience] to the student far outweighs the cost.'
Arguably in no other sector of the language travel market has visa issuance played such an obstructive role as in the development of language plus work experience. For providers in many countries, it has been difficult to convince immigration authorities that language plus work experience programmes are simply educational courses.
Within the European Union (EU), there are no restrictions on EU members wishing to undertake unpaid and paid work in other EU countries, and, for those wishing to retrain, funding through the EU's Leonardo da Vinci scheme may also be available. Non-EU students, however, have found it almost impossible to take up work experience programmes in the past, although the situation has now eased.
'Since 1998, non-EU students are allowed to undertake part-time jobs or internship when part of a sandwich course, which has opened up opportunties to non-EU students,' explains Caroline Fox of Twin English Centres in the UK.
More recently, says Duncan Cameron of work placement agency, LAF, the concept of a sandwich course has been 'better defined' by the government, which has meant more non-EU students taking work experience programmes. But Cameron adds, 'Regulations are not the problem, it's the immigration people at the port of entry that can be a problem.'
For Canada, a student visa and work authorisation is required for a work experience programme, although at the time of going to press, revisions to the visa regulations were being discussed. According to Tamsin Paxton of Tamwood Language Institute in Canada, as the work is part of the study course, at present a work authorisation is granted without a 'validated offer of employment'. She adds, 'Depending on the country of origin of the student, there may be difficulty in obtaining the student authorisation. In certain countries, student visas are still difficult to obtain, for example, Colombia and China.'
In the USA, an F visa is required if the work is unpaid and a J visa if it is paid. 'We find that most of the countries that have an easier time getting F visas also have an easier time with Js, while some countries, such as China or Eastern European nations, have a more difficult time,' reports Dan Augustine of Educational Development International in the USA. 'The J visa regulations are in the process of becoming stricter so that participants must show clearly that they are training, and not working during their internship.'
Visa regulations in Australia have also been tightened up. 'The visa regulations are quite strict on the issue of work experience programmes,' confirms Tim Newton, Principal of Aspect ILA Sydney in Australia, 'and students need to be very careful when selecting an internship.' Visa options include a tourist visa, student visa, working holiday visa for a maximum of 12 months' study, or an occupational training visa, where a student is sponsored by a company. The latter two permit the student to receive payment for their work, while those on a student visa must apply for a work authorisation once in Australia to undertake a paid work experience placement.
In New Zealand, Cleve Brown of Worldwide School of English, says, 'As a cultural exchange programme, our internship programme can be done on a visitor visa. There is also a special work visa available for overseas university students who require an internship as part of their course.' He adds, 'The work visa is quite complicated and time consuming. A simplified visa process would certainly help with some students wishing to do an internship.'
It is not just in English-speaking countries where visas stand in the way of potential work experience candidates. Günter Ost of Hermann-Hesse-Kolleg, Germany, concedes, 'There are always actual political circumstances which regulate visa handling. For example, for Chinese or Pakistani students, it is hard to get a visa if there is no postgraduate study in Germany.' Florian Meierhofer of BWS Germanlingua goes as far as to say that for non-EU students, 'it is practically impossible' to gain a visa for work in Germany.