Interns must play the game of hustle

Updated: 2011-08-26 11:41

By Martha Nicholson (China Daily European Weekly)

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Interns must play the game of hustle

For years now China's economic growth has dominated finance headlines around the world. As Europe sinks deeper into economic gloom, and Western nations see rock-bottom employment rates, in China expats are sitting quietly smug in their Xintiandi apartments. They sip on imported Italian coffee and mull over whom else to hire in their ever-expanding offices. It is this wave of wealth that has attracted a new generation of enthusiastic pioneers to China.

The expat interns are arriving, just like I did two weeks ago at Antal International in Shanghai. Antal is a global human capital consultancy based in People's Square, and my job here is to develop the office's press relations. It's a great position to be in because of their growing operations. I'm learning how to operate within an international organization of a hundred offices worldwide and how to function in a Chinese-oriented business culture. My day consists of investigating the latest recruitment market, going to networking events and communicating with journalists.

So I wanted to find out why students come to intern in China, how easy it is for others to find internships in China and finally, what is the real value behind them?

Arguably it is worth coming to intern in China, otherwise I wouldn't be here, not only for the bright future it paves but because, quite honestly, it's great fun. My weekends are spent sunbathing by hotel pools and dining on delicious spicy Sichuan food in the former French concession. I wouldn't be anywhere else.

I tried looking for an internship in London, I really did, but nothing jumped out at me and since I study Chinese, I would be insane not to make the jump. And anyway, research suggests your employers back home will be applauding your stance.

China is recruiting big time, so finding a growing organization won't take much searching. Antal International has reported that 70 percent of Chinese organizations are hiring. When compared to Western organizations, this is a phenomenal difference.

Sarah Jones, manager in Shanghai, is delighted by hiring reports. "We are rapidly expanding into new sectors as more and more multinationals are looking for talented employees, getting vacancies is not the problem, it's filling them with qualified people," she said. As a result, organizations are relying on extensive recruitment and training programs, so we students and interns are in luck.

But there are setbacks and getting your dream internship won't come easily. Without knowledge of Chinese language, your options are confined to multinational corporations and English-speaking services. Within most organizations, including Antal, most of their operations will probably be in Chinese.

So, depending on what you're interested in, think about applying to English-speaking newspapers and magazines, galleries, international businesses and embassies or chambers of commerce.

So, how do you go about finding internships in China? The first thing to bear in mind is connections. One way to get placed is by going through a designated agency's internship schemes. It is apparent that referrals from a friend or contact are a big deal in China because organizations will want to know where you're from and how you know about them.

Let's consider what the recruitment norms in China are: Antal International will often refer a good candidate to clients.

"We recognize here in China that networking is essential, so we make referrals to our clients when we find a unique candidate. Interns should try to replicate this by talking to friends and going to events," Jones said.

My advice would be to persist with contacts by networking and networking hard. Almost all of the interns I have met got their positions through a connection. I found mine through speaking to an employee of the company in the London office, and slowly made my way through the rungs of the organization until I had the office manager of their Shanghai branch on the phone. Try to sound keen, interested and knowledgeable and you'll be there.

Trista Baldwin from the British Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai said she sees a lot of students trying to find internships in Shanghai. She said business picks up in September, after the "quiet summer months", so this is a good time to apply.

Her advice is to be organized about applying and get in touch three months ahead of time, with some follow-up correspondence after a month. She tells applicants to "find out what companies want from you, often organizations will want to see a writing sample and will want to know what skills you can offer them".

The many chambers of commerce in China all run social and formal seminar events that are attended by leaders of industries and potential employers. They all take on interns as well as having close connections with companies who also will potentially be taking on interns. Check out the classifieds in expat magazines and ask any contacts that you have.

From my experience, there aren't many internship systems in place just yet, as companies are operating outside their normal peripheries and don't have the time or budget to assign staff members to train interns. Baldwin said that unrealistic expectations can ruin the internship experience. She told me that "being invited into a company does not mean you will be spoon fed with tasks; you will often have to be proactive".

John Dodsworth is now an associate at the Sofia Group in Shanghai, a position he got after a period of interning.

"The huge number of Chinese graduates emerging from universities with good degrees and near fluent English put Western graduates in a difficult position," he said.

He said you cannot expect a luxurious company culture and must tolerate Chinese conditions of work.

"Working hours are 9-7, with an average of 10 days holiday a year," he said.

Limited budgets and a high number of students looking for internships mean that as an intern you will very rarely be paid in China.

So is it worth losing money while you work as an intern? In my mind, the value must exceed your losses. You'll be working in a major Chinese city where it'll be hard to resist a nice and central apartment (as expensive as Europe). You'll be buying countless coffees from boutique cafs every week, irresistible shopping malls and spas will lure you and needless to say there'll be the nights out on the weekends where you spend in excess of 300 yuan (33 euros).

Life as an unpaid intern leaves you in the red - there's no doubt about it. Make it worth your while. Don't accept an offer unless it will give you real responsibility, build on your skills and is in line your interests or degree. That's the best way to make sure the internship is of value to you. Whether it is valuable to employers back home is down to what you take from it.

"Students tend to come out on the back of an internship to have fun, and why not? But employers back home won't be impressed if you haven't learned any Chinese and didn't gain any transferrable skills from the work you did," Jones said.

Baldwin agreed. "Interns who have learned to operate in unfamiliar territory and have navigated the myriad of challenges China faces are certainly more employable than those who just stick to the expat life," she said.

Interns must step out of their comfort zone and learn some Chinese in order to cash in from what China has to offer. I've certainly taken this on board and constantly nagged my poor Antal colleagues to translate various phrases to me in Chinese. They're patient and I'm gradually getting better, all credit to them.

Admittedly it's hard to bridge that culture gap, but try and hang out with your Chinese colleagues and friends. The Antal International office is alive with chatter and there are several languages spoken, which is not surprising since there are Antal offices in 33 countries around the world.

Anyone would rightly forecast that Chinese business partnerships will be getting more important in the English speaking world. I've witnessed people getting jobs in financial services in Sydney because of their knowledge and experience in China. As the nation's trade relations begin to touch every corner of the globe, I reckon a knowledge of the Chinese language and business will become fundamental.

"Many companies are looking to expand and establish themselves in China, so your internship could set you apart from others," Dodsworth said.

Baldwin added that "China's reputation of growth and emerging influence will give that wow factor to your CV".

What would my advice be? First, be organized and proactive about finding a job, planning far in advance to locate your internship. Try to build up connections and network like mad until you find an interested employer. Then when you've landed your internship, utilize the environment you're in to develop your interests and skills by pushing to work in interesting spheres.

Finally, and most importantly, learn Chinese. Dodsworth told me that he plans to stay in China until his language is at a "workable level", because quite honestly, it's not worth your airfare if you don't.

The author is an intern at Antal International. The opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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