ASK a tertiary student undergoing internship about her experience, and she'll either tell you that she had a horrible time, or know someone who did.
"Horrible" could mean doing nothing but photocopying letters and making coffee, or dealing with draconian employers who worked her to the bone.
Putting aside the sales pitch of tertiary institutions on the wonders of internships, what employers expect of interns can be quite different from what the rookies think they're going in for.
Interns can have many expectations, or none at all. Sometimes, what they expect can be way off the mark.
Take World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Malaysia, for example.
"Many interns join WWF because they want to see tigers," says recruitment officer Khao Yen Ling. "But this is not a zoo. We're only trying to protect the habitat of these animals.
"Besides, most of the time, it's rare to spot tigers," she adds.
Khao hopes that through internships, students will appreciate that they're contributing to Mother Nature. It helps when they join WWF with an open mind, and a positive attitude.
"When we ask prospective interns about their expectations and why they want to intern with WWF, most just say that they need merit points for their university courses."
She has another pointer for potential interns: understand what the company or organisation is about before applying. "I've come across a few who tell me, "Sorry, but what does WWF do?"
Looking for a 'fit'
For General Electric (GE), a "cultural fit" is important as the company is looking at hiring its Graduate Leadership Programme (GLP) interns, especially for entry-level jobs.
"When we started this programme, we had a few objectives," says GE Malaysia human resource director Anusoorya Themudu. "First, we wanted to build a pipeline of people we could hire in the future. Second, we wanted to equip Malaysian students with the right knowledge and skills."
"We look for a 'fit' because when we hire people, it's for a career, not just a job. Candidates are expected to work across all the industries we deal with, so we want business acumen, executive presence and leadership quality.
"If I already have people who can 'jive' with our culture and had experience working with us, why would I look for someone else with no experience?" Anusoorya says, adding that GE aims to capture talent in the universities.
With that in mind, some companies have begun to treat interns like employees.
Website development company 1.com.my managing director Earnpin Lee and sales manager Eisenhower Lee opted for this after noticing that their interns were coming in late for work, or not feeling motivated - all because they were treated as cheap labour.
"In 2002, we gave our first batch of interns mundane tasks that we didn't want to do," Lee says. "We found if you treat them like robots, you get robot results."
On the other hand, including them in projects fanned their passion and gave them a sense of belonging.
Although there are some inevitable instances when photocopying is part of the job, Anne Low of production house Popiah Pictures says her interns assume the same responsibilities as those of an assistant producer - they pick up costumes from sponsors, source for shoot locations, apply make-up on artists, handle equipment, and more.
"Learning things first-hand is the best way to get into the industry," Low says.
KPMG staff partner and financial advisory services executive director Siew Chin Kiang is aware that some interns complain about being given boring work, but he advises them to adopt the right perspective.
"Many students are academically driven and expect to learn technical things. But they should focus on personal development, like the ability to network and establish relationships with seniors," says Siew.
Interns are potential employees, and internship presents a unique opportunity to assess them, says KPMG human resources consultant Ivo van der Kleij.
From the hundreds who apply, potential candidates are chosen based on certain academic requirements and their co-curricular involvement. Next, they have to take numerical and language tests similar to those job seekers have to undergo.
But it's not all work and no play, as KPMG also organises lunches, social meets and a comprehensive orientation programme.
"In the first week, we organise a lunch with partners and head of departments so the interns can get to know them. They also have training on risk management, so they don't spend much time in the office," says Van Der Kleij.
"In the first month, we have 'night at the movies'. But before that, they're involved in presentations and team building activities."
Depending on an intern's willingness and which company he or she works in, employers agree that there is always something to learn.
From his own observations, Eisenhower notes that interns and staff bond better in smaller companies as "they have to do everything". However, in bigger companies, the former get to learn procedures, protocol, discipline and ways to climb up the corporate ladder.
Earnpin reveals that some interns return to his company upon graduation for career advice and tips on setting up their own businesses, knowing that he and Eisenhower had started 1.com.my after university.
|Themudu: we hire people for a career
Siew admits that it is easier to feel lost in a big company as the interns have to make new friends and pick up new skills amidst a data overload. In a small company, they benefit from having seniors who have time to mentor them.
But there are some things that you can only learn in a big company like KPMG, he adds.
"Sure it may be tougher here, but you learn to be disciplined and to adapt to different conditions. In a multinational firm, you can also acquire skills to help you find work abroad."
Siew finds that some interns join small firms with the hope of being exposed to more skills. But when they enter a big firm, they have difficulty adapting.
Another advantage of a big company is that students will probably be part of a structured internship programme, instead of being left to themselves.
GE's GLP runs for three to six months. It takes in students who not only meet certain academic and co-curriculum requirements but also carry themselves well when presenting business case studies, or when conducting interviews before a panel of leaders.
And instead of interns, these students are called GLPs.
During the internship, there are training sessions and roundtable meetings with top leaders, a tour of the GE factory and full immersion into the company culture - which includes being involved in the GE Olympics, an in-house sporting event, and GE Volunteers, whereby each GLP is required to lead a project.
|Low: It's a chance
to learn things
"In this company, we give the GLPs 'meaty' assignments that usually people with five or six years' experience would do," Anusoorya adds. For a non-government agency like WWF Malaysia, the internship experience hinges more on its niche area - environmental conservation - than the organisation's size.
Khao explains that WWF interns, mostly from public universities, are engaged in various activities, from setting up camera traps in the jungle and tagging turtles to writing articles, depending on what they're studying and their project team leaders.
"Conservation is very unique as interns get to deal with issues on the ground. For example, they get to see what happens to trees felled to make tables."
Low says Popiah Pictures takes in four batches of interns each year to help with productions. These groups of three to four usually comprise media or broadcasting students.
"Now that our productions have increased, we bring in extra hands to reduce the costs and take some work pressure off us," she says.
The same goes for other small set-ups like 1.com.my, where interns are a welcome help. They get to create websites and advertisement-booking platforms, travel guides and an e-visa system, and are exposed to marketing, design, programming and operations,
Eisenhower is quick to point out that they have six permanent employees, and "although interns help out with the work, we don't really need them to function.
"One reason we take them is talent sourcing. Also, it's easy to mould them - almost all our permanent staff are former interns."
Popiah Pictures and 1.com.my give their interns an allowance of about RM300 monthly. On top of that, there are hidden costs involved.
"Interns are not cheap!" Says Siew, whose company pays them RM800 a month.
"There is significant investment of our time in terms of orientation and training. Then there are the mistakes we have to correct when they work with our clients."
For KPMG, which takes in about 200 interns a year, mostly for its audit department, the internship programme serves as a source for the next generation of employees.
Earnpin thinks the effort he puts in to train interns is worth it. But he has friends who disagree.
"I talked to those in another company and they said, "No, interns won't help us," because they've had bad experiences."
It's not always the interns who are to blame, he adds. Sometimes, the culture of a company does not suit having interns.
Low observes that these days, some students lack what it takes to make it in the "real world". They cannot cope, even with constant guidance during their internship. She has also had parents calling her up to complain that she was overworking their children.
Her production interns are literally "thrown into the deep end"; they have to put in occasional 14-hour workdays - which is what the TV and film industry is about.
When interns consistently under-perform, Low has had to pull them out of projects and let them handle menial work.
"Ideally, employers should not relegate interns to mundane tasks, but some of them just keep messing things up!" she quips. For the record, interns have crashed her company vehicles and lost laptops and important props.
However, she recounts with pleasure her experience with an ideal intern.
"The girl joined us recently on a small production. She had initiative and wonderful enthusiasm - she would give us feedback and bring props from home.
"During the long hours (of filming), she never complained. That makes a big difference to us."
This article was first published in The Star on June 29, 2008.
All pictures from The Star
|Is this article useful to you?