When it comes to taking the first steps onto the career ladder or looking to change direction within the work environment, work experience and internships are a powerful asset in an increasingly competitive employment market and it is this that is driving demand for overseas work placements and internships. “Internships are a means to practise and improve language skills whilst obtaining experience of a work environment in an industry in which all our interns are interested in having a career,” explains Anton Borgen Davis at Globe English Centre in the UK. “It offers significant chance for personal development whilst living in a foreign country and looks good to potential employers.” Janet Gilman of ECTi, a UK-based internship provider, also highlights the advantages of internships and says, “The benefit to students of the internship and the paid work experience programme are significant in enhancing career prospects in a competitive job market.” She adds that some of their students are even offered jobs by their internship companies or remain in their paid work experience after the completion of their programme period.
Raphaëlle Gondry at French agency Inter-Séjours comments on the importance of internships to university students. “An internship helps the student to complete their studies by the experience it provides them, by the improvement of their knowledge in foreign languages and by contact with foreign people that opens their mind to the world and other cultures.”
Increasingly it is “soft skills”, such as good communication, time management, professionalism, innovation, project management and teamwork that are attractive to employers. Nicky van Dyk from Magister, an internship and volunteering organisation in South Africa, observes that work placements help students’ personal development, “Most of our students come to Cape Town for periods of between three-to-six months and I have seen how this experience has allowed students to grow through having to adapt themselves to a new culture, experience how companies in different countries operate in different ways and the advantages and disadvantages related to this. Students have to step outside their comfort zones and this alone leads to great personal growth.”
Letitia Hatanaka at Travellers Worldwide, a UK-based company that organises internships in a wide range of countries, says that a successful internship or work placement can give students confidence, an impressive embellishment to their CV, the opportunity to begin a new career path and helps them stand out from the crowd at interviews. “We have countless feedback from previous students who have experienced life changing shifts following interning overseas with us,” she observes.
For those students wishing to gain international work experience there are several options available including structured placements, usually in an industry of the student’s choice, casual paid placements, volunteer placements and au pair opportunities. For the purposes of this feature we are focusing on unpaid internships and paid work placements. There are many factors to consider when entering into this sector of the study abroad market. First, there are the placement organisations themselves. While a handful of language schools organise their own placements, many others work through specialised work placement organisations, and then there are work placement companies which study abroad advisors can work with directly.
Generally, the type of placements varies widely from one provider to another. Travellers Worldwide in the UK has over 120 internship projects in law, journalism, medicine, tourism, business and teaching to name just some of the opportunities. As each project has specific requirements, the company conducts a consultation with the student by phone before placing them on a particular project.
INTERNeX International Exchange, a Canadian-based company that organises placements in Canada and New Zealand, offers specialised unpaid internships for university credits, paid placements in the hospitality sector, unpaid stays on ranches in rural areas to experience farming life and unpaid volunteer opportunities taking care of injured and orphaned wildlife. Company President, Timothy Wells, explains their internship programme: “The Internship Programme gives participants the chance to get real-world, hands-on specialised experience in almost any industry. The quality and level of placements depend on the candidate’s individual experience, education, area of placement, time of year and duration of placement. Placements involve project work and/or participating in day-to-day operations to see how an organisation functions in Canada or New Zealand. It is a great opportunity to put theory learned in school into practice and to broaden business networks. In most cases these are for university credit and the specific content requirements are determined before participants enrol in the programme. Placement type and content are guaranteed when the placement is secured.”
At Geranios Spanish and English Institute in Spain students can enrol on their teaching assistant programme where the participants receive c700 (US$997) per month from the school where they “work”. They also arrange unpaid internships in a variety of industry areas including healthcare, marketing and journalism. “Internships are not as common in Spain as in the USA,” says Maria Teresa Alonso Geranios at the institute, “but many institutions and businesses in Seville are becoming more familiar with the concept and are eager to work with committed students.”
Work experience and internships is undoubtedly a growing sector of the study abroad market, with a number of factors propelling demand, not least of which is the current economic climate. Hatanaka lists this and the need to stand out from the crowd on a CV, difficulty getting work experience in the UK without previous work experience, higher levels of redundancy, huge competition for graduate jobs, and general dissatisfaction within the workplace leading to a desire to change career paths, as contributors to the sector’s growth.
Wells agrees, “Since the recession, and with significant changes taking place in many universities worldwide namely an increasing focus on professionalisation and internationalisation we have seen dramatic growth in the internship market in 2010/11 nearly 100 per cent growth.” Gilman also reports that demand for their portfolio of internships remains high, especially in marketing, finance and media, while Diana Folch at ABCHumboldt in Spain says demand from German students for business-related internships in other countries has soared.
For Magister in South Africa demand has largely been fuelled by university students, and van Dyk comments that there is huge growth potential in this area as more and more universities require students to complete a compulsory internship abroad. David Sampere at Estudio Sampere in Spain, a language school that offers internship programmes, also says that they have alot of interest from students who require an internship as part of their university course.
Internships and work experience undoubtedly have global appeal, but there have been changes in nationality trend of late. According to Sampere, their main intern nationalities include Swiss, German and French students but more recently they have seen American student interest peaking.
At Magister, most interns have traditionally come from European markets but interest from the USA has also been growing. Now around 40 per cent of their interns are American. Meanwhile, Diana Pilling at Australian Internships in Australia, says their programme has always been popular in Asia and Europe but new markets have recently been opening up. “We receive a large number of applications from countries like Japan, China, the Philippines, Korea, India, Germany, France, and Italy,” she says. “In the last two years we have seen a rapid increase in the applications coming from the Latin America region, particularly from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Mexico.” There has also been more American interest, she notes. “Recently, we have been promoting the programme in the North American market. Canadian and American students find the internship programme very interesting. There is no language barrier and the visa application process is simpler compared with Latin American or Asian countries. American and Canadian students are also eligible for the Working Holiday Visa and Work and Holiday Visa Programmes in Australia, which means they can apply online and get a response in a few days.”
Wells at INTERNeX reports that most of their interns come from Europe, specifically the Netherlands and Germany. “Countries where we have seen a recent growth,” he relates, “have been Belgium and Denmark with Italy, Spain and the UK soon to follow. The increase in interest is not only a direct result of changing university policies, but also because of a Europe-wide (and in fact, international) agenda to increase the available internship opportunities for students. This is also increasing internationally in places such as Mexico, Canada and the United States.“
Elsewhere, Robert Jago, Director of Vancouver Internships, another Canadian-based provider, notes that their internship programmes are most popular with North American and European students, while paid work placements tend to attract more Latin Americans. In addition, “The feedback we hear from most agents is that they’re switching their business to Canada from places like the USA or UK,” says Jago, perhaps owing to unfavourable market conditions in the latter two markets (see box below left).
The price tag
The duration, content and price of the internship varies between providers. At Magister, for example, students can take an unpaid placement for as little as one week, while ETCi in the UK offers paid placements in the hospitality sector for a minimum of six months and internships for a minimum period of four weeks, with costs starting at UK£550 (US$895) and commission offered to agents. Some programmes, such as the Casual Work Experience programme offered at Vancouver Internships, make a period of language tuition compulsory. Jago adds, “[Language tuition] is also compulsory for any student who cannot obtain an International Experience Canada (working holiday) visa.” Others, meanwhile, only stipulate the language level required prior to the placement. ABCHumboldt in Germany offers a two-week intensive Spanish course plus internship in Barcelona of at least eight weeks which costs c930 (US$1,324), and while the language component is not compulsory it is highly recommended. At AIP Language Institute in Spain, a minimum two-week language course is required before starting an internship and the language level must be at high intermediate level. The internship itself lasts from two-to-six months, with 20-to-40 hours of work experience per week.
Of course, internship programmes can be an additional expense to students looking at study and/or working overseas but Gondry says that study abroad advisory centres and work placement and internship agencies offer an invaluable service. “We often receive calls from desperate students that have gone to England aiming to find a job on their own, but it is very complicated for them to find a legal job alone so they ask us for some help,” Gondry relates. “Moreover, they are sometimes looking for a job for a long time, and after a while they are not able to pay their accommodation anymore because they haven’t found any work position yet. Our services propose a job and accommodation, the young men and women leave knowing already where they are going to work and live.”
Hatanaka also stresses that arranging internships through a specialist company gives them certain assurances. “Programmes such as ours are designed for people looking for a structured and organised experience, with back up and 24-hour assistance should they require help. Great for people new to living in a different culture, or looking for strong links within their industry. Also good for people on a time limit looking to gain a credible experience in a short space of time.”
Fernando Ribas at AIP says that although demand for their placements is growing, most of their students come through the EU’s Erasmus and Leonardo schemes and do not generally want to pay any extra for a work placement. “It is difficult to convince these kinds of students to pay the extra for a work placement...But once they accept, and they start the programme, they easily understand the convenience of a host school that takes care of everything.”
Despite burgeoning demand, the work experience sector is finding it hard to realise its full potential in many countries owing to restrictive measures. Tighter visa regulations in the UK have put the sector in a stranglehold, hampering non-EU nationals from undertaking such programmes. Keith Broomer from Twin Group laments that they have moved away from offering general or combination courses that comprise a work experience component owing to the changes. “The government’s prejudice against private institutions being licensed sponsors to offer these programmes to international students [requiring a Tier 4 visa] over the consideration/bias given to state sector institutions has effectively made the whole thing too much of a problem and uneconomic for us.” Instead, the company is now focussing exclusively on the EU market, he notes.
At Global English in the UK, which has predominantly EU nationals on its internship programme, they too have felt the effects of the new visa regulations, albeit marginally. “It would have been a much bigger effect had we worked with non-EU countries more with regards to these programmes,” relates the school’s Anton Borgen Davis. “At this stage we have not received any non-EU work experience clients due to the new Tier 4 visa regulations three-to-five clients have been put off by the visas and joined other courses instead.”
Visa problems have also been encountered by Spanish students seeking internships in Australia, according to Marta Pedrera at Experience Australia. “We receive many enquiries for internships so there is an interest in these programmes,” she observes. “However, getting a visa to do an internship in Australia is neither an easy nor an inexpensive process. Prospective interns must complete a substantial amount of paperwork well in advance of their intended travel date. There are also strict requirements for the candidates.” For these reasons, she says, not many Spaniards travel to Australia to undertake an internship. “Often, when they are already in the country, finishing an English course and thinking about doing an internship, it is already too late to start the process as it takes at least four months for unpaid internships and six months for paid internships,” she says.
In Canada, too, there are factors hindering growth. “The major limitations we face are the strict limits on available working permits for these programmes and the time taken to issue these permits and the sometimes extensive delays in the government releasing permits for the new year,” says Timothy Wells at INTERNeX International Exchange. He adds, “Paid placements are especially popular for Scandinavian, Brazilian and Eastern European participants; as Canada and New Zealand sign more bilateral agreements on youth exchanges, this is set to increase, though at present demand far outweighs availability.”
Regulations in the host country can also dictate what type of placements are available. For example, in South Africa all placements are unpaid. “The internships we offer are unpaid and this is due to the strict regulations from the Department of Home Affairs, which stipulates that interns are not allowed to receive payment. If payment is received, interns would need to apply for a general work permit and this is very lengthy and expensive to obtain. An exception is when a student is under 25 and they can apply for an exchange permit [allowing them] to receive payment,” says Nicky van Dyk at Cape Town-based internship company, Magister.
To be paid or not to be paid
Generally speaking, there is a big difference between paid and unpaid work placements, as Timothy Wells at INTERNeX International Exchange in Canada explains, “When a host organisation pays a salary or any kind of remuneration, the focus becomes less on the opportunity for the candidate but on what they can do for the company, meaning they control what they do and their opportunity will become both less flexible and far less about the learning experience.”
Mayumi Hara at Japanese agency, My Ryugaku Center, reports that because of the adverse economic situation in Japan, many of their clients are specifically looking for paid work experience. The agency works with Kanko Tourism University, a college specialising in tourism courses, where students have to take a one-year placement as part of their studies. And there is, she says, a growing trend whereby students are opting to take this paid placement abroad. “For Japanese students, they can learn English, mix with native speakers and the big advantage is that they get paid,” affirms Hara.
Diana Pilling at Australian Internships in Australia notes that they have seen an increase in hospitality and culinary students applying for their paid hospitality programme. In this fast growing industry “there is an increasing demand for qualified professionals who have excellent English language skills and who have gained substantial experience,” she affirms.
While the vast majority of paid placements are in the hospitality field, internships are generally found in other sectors and students can often choose a placement that is aligned with their chosen future career path. Pilling observes that the most popular fields include biology, law, environmental sciences, and international business and trade.