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September 2006 issue

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Working all over the world

Working while overseas as well as travelling and studying a language is the next step in student travel – a logical progression for an industry that sells authentic intercultural experiences. Jane Vernon Smith reports on the evolving and diverse work & travel sector.

Business is booming in the work & travel sector, with more specialised workshops for this sector now on offer than five years ago, and the dedicated industry association, Global Work Experience Association (Gwea), reporting that its members estimated a 22 per cent growth in business during the period 2004 to 2005. And according to Gwea spokesperson, Antonella Tonna, more and more organisations are moving into the sector.

The term work & travel (actually, more correctly work & travel/study) encompasses a variety of different overseas experiences that may include either paid or unpaid work. In the paid work category are working holidays and paid work experience, both of which generally involve relatively low level jobs, typically in the service sector, while unpaid programmes include, on the one hand, volunteering opportunities and, on the other, professional internships. While each of these may be arranged through specialist operators, and may stand alone as a valuable experience, most are also offered by language schools in conjunction with a formal language programme that can serve to enhance the value of the overseas work placement.

Ways to work overseas

All of the options available to students offer the opportunity to experience a different culture. Beyond that, however, they vary considerably. At the most basic level is the working holiday, which is normally undertaken without a language course add-on. As German working holiday organiser, Anne von Gleichen, explains, “The student generally comes with a good written knowledge of the language, and wants to practise their speaking.” At Global Lifestyles Canada (GLC), which offers both working holiday and volunteer placements, most participants place an emphasis on budget, and view the experience as a highly effective way to improve their language skills, notes Director, Paula Jamieson. “I would say that students in general are becoming more budget-conscious, and sometimes opt out of language courses, if possible,” she adds.

The ideal working holiday is one in which participants can get a real taste of the country. So, although service industry positions – such as in cafés, restaurants and gift shops – have always been popular, GLC has recently responded to interest shown in workplaces such as outdoor skiing resorts, hiking and fishing resorts and adventure travel-related industries. According to Jamieson, participation in GLC’s working holiday programme is up by 33 per cent on last year. This growth has been assisted, she points out, by the growth in the number of budget tour operators, ski and snowboard schools, bus companies, hostels, etc, for whom internationals students are their number-one customers. “This has led to improved knowledge and acceptance of international student travel, and therefore has led to increased work opportunities for these same students,” she observes.

The difference between a working holiday and paid work experience is a narrow one, defined principally in terms of visa categories. Generally speaking, both involve the same types of work, in contrast to an unpaid internship, which should, according to Intern-UK’s Stuart Blake, “be a life-changing experience and should enhance the intern’s career prospects substantially”. Paid work experience, by contrast, in the words of Milena Langer from GLS Sprachenzentrum in Germany, is generally targeted towards “the more price-sensitive students, who don’t put emphasis on developing their career.”

While the emphasis on paid work experience is on earning money and funding an overseas experience, many participants also want to combine working with language study and use the income from the former to finance their studies in a language school. As Erin Corcoran from Don Quijote in Spain explains, “Freshly graduated European students often want to travel and learn a language, but need to earn their own keep at the same time, in order to stay four months, six months or a year abroad. “

In high demand – paid work experience

If working can be combined with fun work in an exotic location, then so much the better; hence the rising popularity of Hawaii in the USA as a destination for clients, as Clarice Caliman, spokesperson for Brazilian agency, Intercâmbios No Exterior, observes. In terms of types of work, the greatest demand from her clients is for ski resorts, she explains, although she adds that there is growing interest from students in such employment areas as hotels, golf resorts, theme parks and restaurants.

Within Europe, demand for work placements has increased dramatically following EU expansion, according to Corcoran, and the number of organisations offering paid work experience also appears to be expanding. Among language schools, St Giles International and Oxford House College in the UK have recently begun offering language plus paid work experience in response to student demand, as has Aspect in the UK and Ireland. Given the increased level of competition, some placement organisers are offering extras to set themselves apart from the opposition and make themselves more attractive to clients. “We try to include useful add-ons, like job interview training, or even a barista [professional coffee maker] course for students who would like to work in hospitality,” says Katja Liebau-Knothe of GLS Sprachenzentrum in Germany.

There is, however, some indication that suitable placements are becoming harder to find. According to Tommi Muttonen, Group Sales Manager at Twin Group in the UK, which arranges both paid placements and internships, teaching assistant placements, catering and hospitality industry placements can be difficult to find, especially during the summer. Other organisers, nevertheless, stress that there remains little difficulty so long as candidates have a sufficient command of the local language.

Many organisations that offer both language study and work experience tend to insist on a certain period of language study prior to embarking on a work placement. As Corcoran points out, “This way we can ensure the client has a good grasp of Spanish before they embark on their work experience. It also helps land them a more interesting job.” This view is echoed by Ramón Clavijo of Spanish language school, Academia Iria Flavia in Spain, who says, “Because the work positions offered involve direct contact with the public, students are required to have at least an intermediate level of Spanish.” Even if this criterion is already fulfilled, candidates are still required to undertake a minimum of four weeks’ language tuition, although this may run simultaneously with the work placement.

According to Günter Ost, Director of Hermann-Hesse-Kolleg in Germany, finding placements depends not only on language competence, but also the field of work, the skills and personality of the candidate, as well as their wage expectations. And Will Dowling of Ireland’s Dublin School of English highlights that wages can vary considerably country-by-country. “I think a study of the minimum and average wages for the placement of students would be helpful for students choosing a country,” he suggests.

Paying for professional practice

While remuneration is a major priority for those seeking paid work placements, quality of experience is normally the number-one criterion when it comes to unpaid internships. As Blake at Intern-UK is anxious to record, a genuine internship is not simply unpaid work experience. Rather, it is a full-time, project-based placement that will enhance the CV of the candidate and is only suitable for those with a strong career commitment. Areas of work thus differ greatly from the typical paid work experience job. At Australian Internships in Australia, Managing Director, Diana Pilling, notes that the top six fields are marketing, human resources (HR), information technology (IT), engineering, hospitality and finance.

Marketing is also the most requested internship at Twin Group in the UK and, along with advertising, has been a major driver of growth in the increase in placement requests at UK-based Regent Language Training, according to Work Experience Manager, Tom Clark. In South Africa, too, where Magister Student Placement Organisation offers placements across “every field except medical internships”, Director, Nicky van Dyk, notes a very similar pattern of client demand.

Internships may also be obtained in highly specialised areas. At Intern-UK, medical internships are available, but Blake says that demand always outstrips supply – to the extent that teaching hospitals have started “charging” interns for the supervisory time of doctors and consultants. Meanwhile, Dowling in Dublin notes, “We have successfully placed people…with the Irish parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly [and] in the Wood Research Institute in University College, Dublin.”

According to Pilling in Australia, the demand for internship programmes increases year-on-year, with students increasingly seeking high quality placements. This means that finding suitable openings for clients is never easy. One reason for this is, as Pilling points out, more government agencies and education institutions are encouraging students and young professionals to complete an internship abroad. This trend is seen in many parts of the world; Blake notes that international internships are featuring increasingly as part of a degree course, earning credits towards the final degree award. Meanwhile, in Germany, Langer too has witnessed a growing trend for students being required to complete an internship as part of their university studies.

Students are normally required to pay a placement fee for their internship, and a high quality internship does not come cheaply. In acknowledgement of the high cost of internship programmes, Netherlands-based agency, Europlacement, has ventured into the field of internet-based placement. According to spokesperson, Veronika Kovacsova, the company was established “as a necessity, to [make] internships abroad more affordable.”

The way it has done this is to allow students to arrange their own placement free of charge via the company’s online database, where they can also find useful tips and advice. For those who require it, a tailor-made, personal service is also available for a fee.

Meanwhile, at UK-based Travellers Worldwide, average costs for placement are between UK£1,000-UK£1,600 (US$1,850-US$2,960), excluding flights. “Depending on what, where and who you go with, and what you get out of it, you could pay between £1,000 (US$1,850) and £6,000 (US$11,100) for a three-month placement with companies in a similar sector [to ours],” claims Marketing Manager, Letitia Hardy. However, with growing competition in the sector, Pilling notes that some providers are cutting prices, with negative implications for both intern and host company in terms of the quality of experience.

Working for nothing but social good

The fourth option encompassed within the work & travel sector is volunteering – where participants offer their services free of charge to take part in social and environmental projects, such as teaching, care and conservation. As Tom Peden of US-based World Endeavors highlights, “Volunteering abroad is really a different type of experience than working, interning or studying abroad. International volunteers have different goals… They are looking for an opportunity to do something meaningful abroad – to help other people, while also enriching their own lives.”

The rewards of this type of experience are appreciated by a growing number of people of all ages around the world. Alexis Bleasdale, Marketing Manager at Global Vision International in the UK, notes that, “The last two years have seen a significant increase in interest and in bookings.” And according to Faye Stickings at UK-based Teaching & Projects Abroad, “the market has now become saturated with voluntary organisations”.

One factor driving growth in this sector is the rising popularity of the gap year, prior to university entry. This, Stickings suggests, is becoming the norm, and together with tougher university entry requirements, it means that students need to differentiate themselves through extra-curricular work. At the same time, many companies are encouraging their employees to take time out to broaden their awareness, while retired people are also taking more interest.

At one of the best known volunteering organisations, VSO, Neera Dhingra, Head of Media, relates that the age profile of volunteers has increased over the years, “as we have moved away from sending gap year students and recent graduates to sending experienced professionals”. VSO, which works in more than 30 of the world’s poorest countries, focuses on recruiting health and education specialists. Experts in public or private sector management, IT and community development are also in high demand, says Dhingra. Other volunteering organisations often recruit on a less specialist level, which is reflected in a lower age profile for volunteers. At Teaching & Projects Abroad, the typical recruit is aged 18-to-24, and an undergraduate or recent graduate.

As the sector has grown, volunteers have become more specific about the type of voluntary work they want to do than in the past, says Nick Pike at VentureCo Worldwide in the UK. Stickings notes that medical placements are very popular, due to the need to have practical experience on a CV before applying to medical school. Importantly, however, Dhingra sums up, “our work is driven by what our overseas partners need, and we find people for jobs, rather than jobs for people.”

Destination is not always important for volunteers, although it is clearly more so in cases where volunteering is to be combined with furthering a student’s foreign language skills. The better the language competence, the better the all-round experience. “For that reason, we offer language programmes in conjunction with volunteer placements in many of our projects in Latin America,” comments Ross Wehner, Managing Director of Volunteer Adventures in the USA. And Hardy at Travellers Worldwide notes, “More and more people are combining a language programme with a work programme where it is possible.”

The message to be learned from this is that language study and work experience are far from being mutually exclusive choices – in all areas of work & travel, there are excellent opportunities to combine the two, to market to a wider client base and allow clients to come up with the perfectly honed CV, or have a great time while broadening their horizons. Corcoran underlines, “[These range of programmes] are an excellent way to gain beneficial experiences for both professional and personal use.”

Nationality trends

Overseas work experience is appealing to many students wishing to improve their foreign language skills and is sometimes seen as a cheaper alternative to undertaking a language programme. However, because of visa restrictions, many students are barred from undertaking overseas work placements, unless they opt for a combined work and study programme, sometimes known as a sandwich course.

In Germany, for example, paid work experience alone and working holidays are only available to those originating from within the European Union (EU). In fact, working holiday organiser, Anne von Gleichen, notes that the pool of countries from which she can recruit is limited to the “old” EU countries, as restrictions remain in place preventing those from the new member states from taking part in such programmes.

Visa restrictions also prevent students from Argentina from undertaking working holidays in Australia and Canada, as agent Veronica Ferreyra of InterLatina agency points out. However, she says New Zealand is a popular destination for Argentinian students to undertake working holidays, thanks to an agreement between the two countries.

Because of these visa restrictions on work placements, European programmes that combine a period of paid work experience with language study are reported to enjoy a high level of popularity with non-EU nationals. Tommi Muttonen at UK-based Twin Group says that those from Poland, Czech Republic and the Baltic States account for many of their candidates on paid hospitality and catering placement programmes. Meanwhile, Poland and South America, as well as Germany, Spain and France are the principal student source countries for paid work placements at Aspect Internships UK & Ireland, according to Internship Programme Manager at the school, Carolle Raynor.

Although sandwich courses are popular, Muttonen believes promotional efforts have been frustrated to some extent by a lack of understanding throughout the industry and within the embassies, as to what exactly a sandwich course constitutes. “This is resulting in confusion both among the operators and with [customs officials],” he notes. “We are hoping that current negotiations with the [UK] Home Office will tighten this area up.”

Although visa entry is generally easier to obtain for students on unpaid work placements, Jean-Paul Barsoum at Alpha College of English in Ireland reports that the school’s English + professional work experience (internship) programme is only available to EU citizens.

In Spain, Erin Corcoran of Don Quijote records that many students from the USA and Brazil undertake their Spanish + professional internship programme. Meanwhile, at Twin Group, according to Muttonen, such programmes are dominated by South America, Thailand and Korea. “As the sandwich course concept becomes more established,” he adds, “we are experiencing greater demand from the Middle East, Russia and other non-EU states in Central and Eastern Europe.”

Nationals from original EU member states, such as Spanish, Italian and German students, are reported to be more likely to request Twin’s internship programmes without the language learning element.

Aiming for defined standards

As we have seen, the term “work experience” can encompass a wide range of different paid and unpaid activities. As work experience programmes become increasingly mainstream, so the need grows for clear definitions and standards to be applied in the sector.

The Global Work Experience Association (Gwea) has addressed this issue through publication of its International Standards for Work Experience Programmes, which, according to spokesperson, Antonella Tonna, has been presented to various governments in an effort to encourage worldwide standards.

Through its work experience certificate, Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) has also sought to establish standards in the provision of internship programmes. Placement organisers participating in the scheme are required to inspect and register all organisations offering internships before students are permitted to begin their programmes, while CIE also inspects and accredits placement organisers to ensure the quality of their services, systems and placements.

Students achieving the CIE Certificate in Work Experience can expect to work in a reputable organisation and learn practical, work-related skills that will help in their future careers. Certification is offered at two levels: standard and advanced. For the standard level certificate, candidates are required to fill in an assessment book with details of their placement, while candidates for the advanced level certificate, must also complete a portfolio of work undertaken during the placement.

Reaction to this certificate has been mixed. At Alpha College of English in Dublin, Ireland, which has recently become accredited under the scheme, Jean-Paul Barsoum explains that students are increasingly seeking high quality placement and also want evidence of this that they can show to future employers. “This external certification system not only assures the quality of placements, but allows students to gather evidence of the work they carry out in order to apply for this internationally recognised certificate,” he attests.

But Stuart Blake of Intern-UK is less enthusiastic – regarding the CIE standard level of certification as “really little more than an attendance record”. He nevertheless acknowledges “the excellent work” that CIE are doing to introduce professional standards in the industry. And Di Pilling of Australian Internships, who is Chairperson of the Australian Internships Industry Association (AIIA), adds her backing to the progress made thus far – underlining that there is a growing need for formal recognition in the sector.

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