Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
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18th Jul 2013

Well-designed internships look like the new competitive advantage

Around the world, several interconnected trends suggest there is a troubling gap between the profile of college and university graduates looking for work and the actual requirements of the marketplace. For example:

  • Demand for STEM-type skills (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) is rising sharply. In the US, for example, a 2010 report by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation states that the proportion of STEM graduates will have to increase by 20–30% by 2016 to allow the US economy to grow according to projections, and that the number of jobs in STEM fields grew three times more than non-STEM jobs over the past 12 years and is expected to grow twice as fast by 2018. Meanwhile, in the UK, a recent survey found that 4 in 10 (39%) STEM-reliant firms are “struggling to recruit workers with the advanced, technical STEM skills they need” and that 41% expect shortages to continue for the next three years.
  • College and university graduates are having an increasingly tough time finding jobs. A 2012 Futuretrack survey of recent graduates’ career paths found that 40% of graduates failed to get graduate-calibre posts more than two years after leaving education, around twice the proportion of their peers a decade earlier. See also ICEF Monitor's recent article that references some Chinese graduates’ difficulties finding jobs upon return to China from study abroad.
  • Employers are noting how difficult it is to hire people with the right skill sets for positions. As James Jefferson, creative director and co-founder of the digital marketing agency Equator points out: “If you look at the roles we hire for in our agency, none of them, bar programming, is well catered for by universities – some, like SEO, are almost entirely self-taught.”

Overall, these trends point to one conclusion: students will increasingly demand more of their post-secondary experience in terms of preparation for employment. As a result, higher education will be challenged further to balance the imperative to provide students with a theoretical grounding in their chosen field and the practical, particular, up-to-the-minute skills required to get a desirable job.

Internships increasingly seen not as might-haves, but rather must-haves

As Martin Birchall, managing director of graduate recruitment research firm High Fliers Research, notes:

“Work experience is no longer an optional extra for university students, it’s an essential part of preparing for the graduate job market. Students who just focus on their degree studies without spending time in the workplace are unlikely to develop the skills and interests that graduate employers are looking for.”

Mr Birchall’s firm conducted a survey in 2013 that found that student interns are three times more likely to get top jobs than other graduates:

“Research shows that some 36% of students completing a work experience placement had received at least one definite job offer by the Easter of their final year compared with just 11% of other undergraduates.”

Can internships be made more relevant and flexible?

In an April 2013 ICEF Monitor article

, we looked at various examples of how institutions and governments are recognising the increasing importance of internships. Our examples were mostly traditional internships – paid or unpaid – where a student goes to work for a company for a specified time and then may or may not be hired on. But James Jefferson of Equator recently contributed an article to The Guardian that posits that the concept of internships demands re-evaluation – and stretching. He writes:

“How can we give students ongoing first-hand experience of the type of thinking we expect from our team? …. Might it be possible to create a digital social space that enabled professionals and students to work side by side continually? To share experiences, critique work and mutually benefit from the experience?”

Mr Jefferson argues that digital platforms that allow for learning and collaboration while incorporating the features of social media like Facebook and Twitter – such as Yammer – can begin to connect students to the professional world much sooner, and more seamlessly, than traditional internships alone. You can think of a platform like Yammer as Facebook for a professional discipline or an organisational group. So, for example, you could have a Yammer community devoted to new media, with professors, students, and industry professionals as members. These members could all post ideas, reports, projects, and questions – as well as build relationships. It would be a great way for a new media company to scout the most promising students while they are still in school – and then decide whether to offer them physical internships or better yet, proper jobs. From the other side, the ambitious student in such a group would have a ready-made way of demonstrating her talent – and connecting with the professionals and firms she was most interested in. Another advantage of “virtual” internships? The cost. Students, professors, and industry meet and collaborate for free on platforms such as Yammer, and thus the chances for professional firms to eventually hire the right people go up – because the firms have already seen what the students can do. And finally – what a promising opportunity for international students and/or students who want to find jobs in countries other than where they are studying! Digital meeting-places level out the geographical playing field for international students: a Malaysian student studying at a branch campus in Hong Kong could easily make an impression on a top-notch American medical professor at Harvard on a platform such as Yammer, and the potential career path from there might well be very promising.

Can internships help save the humanities?

Enrolment in the arts and humanities (e.g., an English degree) is declining rapidly. At Harvard College, for example, the number of bachelor degrees in the field has fallen by half from 1966 to 2010. This, despite the fact that many of the world’s top leaders and thinkers began their education in the humanities, an area which – taught well – provides the basis for rational and critical thinking as well as writing skills. Such skills may not be immediately valued in the short-term for a company, but without them, vision and leadership is lost to an overemphasis on urgent yet ephemeral technical know-how. As colleges and universities endeavor to justify liberal arts and reclaim enrolments (see here for an example), it may be that internships can provide part of the answer. One school of thought holds that the arts and humanities are often unnecessarily “siloed” – held off from other subjects and industries as if they didn’t have bearing on them or couldn’t be useful. So some liberal arts and humanities departments at schools are starting to jump on the internship bandwagon. For example, The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, now makes internships mandatory for its English majors. As one article puts it:

“Some of the areas in which Saint Rose students are finding internships might not have even occurred to them otherwise – managing social media for a local credit union, for instance. Through such an experience, students can reconcile the realities of a liberal arts education and the 21st century workplace.”

Moreover, there is a new trend of schools offering summer programmes to help students in any discipline top up their regular studies with specific, marketplace-focused applications. Inside Higher Ed reports:

“A summer programme typically places students in immersive courses teaching basic business skills and principles, and may move to more focused areas like economics, marketing, finance and management.”

It seems clear from all this that providing effective linkages between the world of study and the world of work has the potential to be a more important source of competitive advantage going forward. The colleges and universities that gain a reputation for graduating students with the best balance of desired degree credentials and job-ready acumen and experience may well be the institutions of choice for the next generation of international students.

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