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how do internships abroad help?

Friday 19 February, 2010

I caught with interest this article in the Chicago Tribune by Julie Wernau Americans chase internships abroad as a gateway to work.  I wholeheartedly agree that a foreign internship differentiates employee candidates in the job market, but employers should not expect to hire interns who are cultural experts in the countries where they did their internships.  They’re a great start in learning about the rest of the world, but only that.  Internships are for a limited term, usually on a few months, & it’s simply not possible to learn all of the nuances of a foreign culture in that short period of time.  There are a lot of business people I’ve gotten to know who fly around the world, do a lot of deals, & think they’re intercultural experts.  They’re not.  The article notes that even studying abroad is very different & much more sheltered than working abroad.  Even a 3 month internship is too short to pick up all the differences in the workplace.  You can’t develop any fluency in a language in a few months.  Work environments change from season to season.  I lived & worked in Germany for 2 years, & it wasn’t until the time I left that I felt that I “knew” the Germans.  I think one can learn to defer judgement, be non-judgemental, & learn/adapt to working in a foreign culture, but to expect a young person who doesn’t even know that much about his/her home country’s work environment to contrast/compare with a foreign one is just asking too much.

It’s great that the number of foreign internships has increased so much the last few years (6,950 in Y2K to 13,658 in 2008), but that # still should be much higher.  For example, according to the Institute of International Education, the US 2008 figure is not even as much as Germany sends to the Netherlands.  For a country with a population of 300 million, 13,658 is still very low.

I don’t like the fact that foreign internships are positioned as a last resort, i.e., “I couldn’t get a job, so I left the country.”  In my mind, foreign internships are worth pursuing in their own right, regardless of the current job situation.  The experience gained is immense & will help you in many work situations later in your career.  Quotes like, “I would love to go anywhere,” strike me as unfocused & unrealistic.  If that’s how you’re going about finding a global job, that’s what you’ll get-a job that anyone could get anywhere.

It’s a shame these kinds of opportunities are available only pretty much for younger workers.  I think there are many older workers who would appreciate the opportunity to gain some work experience abroad.  Combining deeper experience with the respect afforded to older workers in other countries, those workers can add even more to the workplace than younger workers.  Supposedly 1/3 of the Association for International Practical Training‘s placements were young professionals.  Since it doesn’t look like they serve any group other than younger workers, (other than lawyers), the other 2/3 must be simply non-professional young workers.  That’s a shame.

I can relate to the experiences of world-travelers who are having difficulties finding a job.  I find it somewhat hypocritical that supposedly american “employers are looking to hire people who understand the economies & cultures of the world.”  Frankly, I don’t see it.  I cross paths with many well-educated, experienced, & culturally-knowledgeable people who repeatedly tell me that their international experience means nothing to potential employers.  My impression is American employers continue, in their insular & parochial ways, to prefer hard skills over soft, which when approaching global markets is a mistake.  American firms miss the boat by not recognizing the skills necessary to compete in world markets.  Hopefully some day  they’ll wake up.

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