Hire standards

Work experience on the shop floor has graduated from niche, technical industries to accepted professional practice. Vision explores the benefits to employers and students alike of the business internship

Young people leaving education are more qualified than ever. More than a third of Americans aged 25 to 29 held a bachelor’s degree in 2012, compared with fewer than 25 per cent in 1995. Yet this smarter-than-ever generation struggle to find jobs: employers have vacancies, but few with the right skills to fill them. Redressing this ‘skills gap’ was one of the recommendations from the 2012 World Economic Forum’s Global Issues Group.

Highly educated graduates now look to top up technical know-how with soft or transferable skills. Many companies have sought to mimic German apprenticeships, where students combine structured study and shop-floor experience. The model has manifested more widely since the 1990s as formal internships. Students and employers see these programmes as a recruitment pipeline to develop the right skills and a valuable opportunity to gain experience.

A report by Bloomberg Businessweek in the US found three-quarters of business students had done an internship. Of those, 61 per cent had a job offer compared with 28 per cent of students without an internship. In the UK, Nestlé employs some 50 per cent of people who do their internships in the UK. Professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) says at least a third of its graduate intake for 2015 in the UK will come from internship and work-placement programmes. “The biggest reason is to test talent,” says Richard Irwin, Director of Student Recruitment at PwC UK. “It allows us to test whether people are right for the firm and for the student to test whether the firm is right for them.”

An intern at Nestlé. Internships are an opportunity to put academic theory into practice and for skills to be tested in the workplace

PwC takes on around 350 penultimate-year undergraduates to its UK summer programme each year. Over six to eight weeks, students work on client projects to give them a flavour of the job. Rigorous selection, investment in training, and feedback from mentors mean some 90 per cent of UK interns get a job offer. “Students who have come through our internship programme perform better, engage better and are better retained than students who come to us as fresh graduates,” emphasises Irwin.

“I chose an internship in an industry I was interested in and didn’t know enough about to make a career jump blind,” says David Sher, an INSEAD MBA graduate who interned at a social-impact investment fund. “An internship should also be used to evaluate whether the job entails a lifestyle you would sign up for,” explains Saif Siddiqui, an MBA student at the National University of Singapore.

Working in a professional environment also helps students put theory into action and hone skills, giving them a competitive edge when it comes to the job hunt and making them better employees. “Many students leave university lacking soft skills such as communication, negotiation and leadership,” says Suzy Style, Head of UK Graduate Recruitment at BP, which takes on 80 to 100 interns in the UK each year.

PwC interns in the UK can earn up to £400 a week and the firm organises three-day residential basic training on the firm’s methodologies. “Successful internships are all about the relationships between the interns, work groups and leaders,” says Nancy Gates, Global Talent Acquisition Manager for equipment manufacturer Caterpillar. “One of the best compliments we hear from interns is they had challenging work and were treated like one of the team.”

Still, having the academic framework to process what they see during internships is critical, says ESMT’s Peppard. ESMT helps deliver the Dubai Business Internships programme (DBI), where graduates from China spend 13 weeks of a 10-month programme doing intense business courses in between work placements in Dubai.

The biggest reason for running internships is to test talent. It allows us to test whether people are right for the firm and for the student to test whether the firm is right for them

Richard Irwin, Director of Student Recruitment at PwC UK

Soft-skills development is built in. During the first 16-week work placement, the interns regroup each Thursday to develop skills. “It’s not always possible for the employer to provide lessons on how to write emails or memos,” says Anna Batchelder, co-founder of Bon Education, responsible for this part of the DBI. “We bring in leaders from around the country to lead workshops on public speaking, writing and etiquette.” Just as MBA’s have become global, such as the multi-country MBAs from INSEAD and the University of Singapore, so internships have become more attuned to the global nature of business.

One benefit of the DBI is cultural exchange. “We welcome interns from many parts of the world,” says Nabil Ramadhan, Chief Human Capital Officer at Jumeirah Group, one of DBI’s partner firms. “With our interns, we are beginning to understand the dynamics of youth culture in China, which is critical as we look for staff to recruit for our hotels.”

In the global market, where the hunt for good jobs and good employees is fierce, internships seem to offer the chance for the two to connect, each being challenged and learning from them.

Dubai Business Internships programme

The 10-month Dubai Business Internships programme (DBI) gives Chinese graduates experience of doing business in the Middle East, while gaining workplace skills. The 17 DBI interns
 gain a mix of academic and real-world expertise. Completing 13 weeks of academic modules, they cover business basics in teamwork, organisational behaviour, marketing, business economics, operations management and project management.

The interns then complete 26-week placements, split into two parts, in key firms including Emaar, Emirates NBD and Jumeirah Group. The interns regroup each Thursday to concentrate on developing business skills such as public speaking. Launched in September, DBI is already bearing fruit for the interns. “I rotate between private banking, investment banking and treasury at Emirates NBD bank,” says Zeng Yikai, graduate of marketing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “This gives me a taste and overview of the different functions in the bank.”

DBI’s cultural programming runs alongside the internships. It helps interns discover Dubai and meet local residents and understand the emirate’s cultural, social and business aspects. “Companies and people from different nations have been welcomed in Dubai, but there is still room for more understanding among different cultures,” says Monica Gao, student at
 the University of Bristol,
UK and intern at Dubai property developer Emaar. “The Chinese market is also very new for Dubai and only partly understood. I think I can help Dubai by contributing my Chinese mindset.”

“Dubai is a great place to work,” affirms Guo Hang, graduate of Hohai University, China. “It is so diverse, you can always learn something new.”