Ask the Expat
Internships Abroad: A Great Way to Build Your Resume
By Volker Poelzl
Senior Consulting Editor
Internships have long been valued as a vital tool for college students and graduates to gain important work experience before embarking on a career path. But it has only been little over a decade that international internships and work abroad experiences have become ever-more-popular. In particular during the past few years—due to a rapidly growing international work environment in many careers and companies—internships abroad have caught the attention of companies, educators, and students as a valuable career tool.
Due to growing international trade, there is also a growing need for employees with experience in the international marketplace. In response to this demand there are many universities and organizations that offer and/or refer international internships for students and graduates. U.S. students have taken advantage of this growing number of overseas internships opportunities. Several large U.S.-based non-profit organizations offering educational and experiential international exchanges have reported a significant increase in American students seeking internships over the past few years. Among them are well-established organizations such as the Association for International Practical Training (AIPT), the Institute of International Education (IIE), and International Education of Students (IES).
At a time when the job market at home is stagnant and employers are still hiring far fewer college graduates than before the recession, this is a great time to look elsewhere for meaningful work experience. As long the economy and the job market are slowly recovering from the recession, internships are a great opportunity to spend your time pursuing a meaningful activity while you hone your job skills and gain international experience. The Job Outlook 2010 Spring Update report (published by the National Association of Colleges & Employers–NACE) shows that employers plan to hire more college graduates than the previous year, the first increase in three years, but the increase is modest. This means that the job market for graduates will likely be tight for some time to come, especially in regions severely affected by the recession. Although unemployment has also risen worldwide over the past few years, and employers continue to cut some jobs, there is an ongoing need for internships and trainees. Companies are looking for their future highly skilled workers, and internships are a great way for employers to attract a pool of talented, but inexperienced students and graduates.
In addition to overseas study, internships abroad are becoming more important for the careers of college students and graduates, especially for those seeking a career in international affairs, business, or government service. But regardless of your future career plans, an internship abroad enhances your job prospects both at home and abroad. In today’s competitive employment sector it is increasingly important to show skills and experiences that will help you stand out in the marketplace after you graduate from college. In an increasingly globalized economy, candidates for jobs who exhibit overseas work experience, an international perspective, and cross-cultural communication skills often have a distinct advantage over their competitors without such experience. Internships are also a great opportunity to immerse yourself in another culture, learn about foreign business practices, study a foreign language, and make local friends.
An internship abroad can also be a great way to get your foot in the door with a company you might be interested in working for in the future. This is especially true if you are considering working overseas. Few employers are willing to hire someone for an overseas position or someone from a foreign country without any experience working abroad. Spending time as an intern in the country of your interest will no doubt make you a more attractive job candidate. To maximize your internship experience, you should make use of everything that you know. If you are an engineering graduate who has also studied German, why not intern with an American company that has a branch in a German city? You will not only get the chance to improve your language skills, but you’ll also intern for a company you might be able to work for at home in a few years.
Internships vary greatly depending upon the university, company, or referral service, and you should find out as many details before accepting a placement or job offer. Some internships are paid, while others are not. Some internships earn you college credit, while others merely complement overseas college study. Also, depending upon how you go about finding an internship position, you may be charged a fee by your placement organization. Some internships include orientations, language, or university courses, room and board, insurance, and visa assistance, while others are simple short-term work placements which leave it up to the intern to find housing, get assistance, and study the local language. Depending upon the country, international interns may be required to have basic knowledge of the local language or take language courses. Find out the details before you commit to a placement. Apart from direct contact with the organization, references from the organization whom you can contact, there are first-hand articles such as those published by Transitions Abroad, and now social media tools such as Facebook which may help you make some connections prior to signing up.
One of the most important considerations is to figure out if you can afford the type of internship you are interested in. At a time when tuition hikes are common and credit is tight, the last thing you would want to do is take on a big debt for a 3-month internship abroad. An internship abroad can become an expensive undertaking, unless you thoroughly plan your stay abroad. When applying for an internship most organizations charge a placement fee, which can vary substantially. Some referral agencies only charge a nominal fee for basic services, while others charge $5,000 to $8,000 for comprehensive services for interns, such as in-country support, orientations, language courses, and more. To assure that you are getting the services you expect and that you are paying a fee that you can afford, you should compare various internship programs in the country of your interest and again pay attention to the details. Find out what services are included, and take note of items you need to pay for separately. The cost of an internship can quickly rise if you consider room and board, travel costs, health insurance, and other expenses such as language courses. Financial aid may be used to cover some of the expenses of an international internship, if you earn college credit while working.
There are several different options for finding internships abroad. Many universities work with companies and organizations that place interns abroad. If you are a university student, you might be able to take up an internship together with a study abroad program, either offered directly by your university or by a study abroad organization. If you don’t find the resources or help you need at your college, you should check out the internship programs of a number of well-established and renowned placement services that refer internships abroad (see below), or you could look for an internship on your own by directly contacting companies overseas. Some government organizations, trade associations, and multinational companies that that offer internships list openings on their website. Check out the State Department website, or the various offices of the American Chamber of Commerce in foreign countries, in addition to large companies you might be interested in volunteering for.
Speaking the language of the country where you would like to intern is a great asset, but it is not mandatory. There are many multinational companies whose corporate language is English, and where you can get by just fine with English. On the other hand, your work experience and your stay overseas will be much more rewarding if you speak the local language or if you take language courses during your internship.
Although the global recession has significantly reduced the chance of Americans getting a work permit overseas, it is much easier to get a permit for an internship abroad than for a regular job. Internships usually don’t last for more than six months, and since interns don’t get paid regular salaries, they don’t compete with the locals for permanent jobs. Each country has its own laws and rules governing internship visas, but short-term work visas for internships are relatively easy to acquire. Some countries will issue a specific internship visa, while others will only offer a regular short-term work permit. In some cases you may be allowed to extend your visa, but in general, a short-term work permit or internship permit is intended for a limited period of time. Also keep in mind that internship visas do not give you the right to permanent residency, a long-term work permit, or citizenship. Also, keep in mind that most visas for interns are intended for one specific employer, and you may not be able to change employers without first returning home and applying for another visa. To avoid disappointment and confusion, make sure you learn about all the visa requirements and conditions before accepting an internship position.
For a list of organizations that offer or refer internships worldwide, go to the Internships Abroad section of TransitionsAbroad.com, where you can also find resources, and first-hand participant reports.
Author's note: This column has an interactive format, and readers are encouraged to submit questions, suggestions, and commentaries, some of which will be addressed in the upcoming issues of the Transitions Abroad Webzine. If you have questions about living abroad that you would like have addressed, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Volker Poelzl is a senior editor and frequent contributor to Transitions Abroad. He has traveled in over thirty countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research and work.