Internships: Evil or Worthwhile?
Written by Terrie Lloyd for Terrie’s Job Tips.
A major staffing company called FujiStaff Holdings has just set up a new subsidiary, called Inter Agent, which will find internships at Japanese firms for foreign students. Inter Agent is apparently wanting to take advantage of the fact that there are around 130,000 foreign students studying in Japan at any given time and many of them want to stay on and get jobs after they graduate.
The timing is such that those larger companies which are on a major globalization push are obviously going to be looking for Japanese-speaking foreigners who can learn the company’s methods and processes, and eventually get assigned positions in that firm’s holdings abroad. As an example, Panasonic has said that next spring it plans for 80% of its new hires to be from applicants who are non-Japanese.
Actually, staffing giant Pasona Group started a similar business back in 1988, helping westerners studying in Japan to find work experience at Japanese firms. In 2007 they moved to take applications from China and Taiwan, and in 2009, 620 of those applying for internships came from those two countries — although only 8 were accepted to finally take up actual internships. The reasons for the low acceptance rate were as always, language and prior work skills.
But while FujiStaff and Pasona are still looking for the right formula to get more foreigners into the workforce via internships and trainee positions, there are already plenty of companies tapping into the foreign student resources pool. According to the Immigration Bureau, 10,277 foreign students in 2008 changed from student status to either an engineering visa or a humanities visa.
We don’t know how many of these were achieved by internships and trainee positions, but knowing that Japanese companies are typically cautious about bringing in foreign staff, we imagine that many of these students changing status are doing so after becoming known to their future employers by some low-risk means such as doing an internship. Indeed, in our opinion, internships are an ideal method for foreigners to segue into a job with a Japanese employer, because the initial shock of having a foreigner in the ranks is soon overcome by growing familiarity and support from co-workers who generally respect a newcomer for having the gumption to do something challenging in their lives.
Internships mean different things to different people. Conventionally for westerners it is a non-paid opportunity for a student or new-to-Japan young person with little or no work experience to work in a company for 1-3 months, with the objective of either gaining recognition on their resume or to eventually gain employment at the company they
are doing the internship for.
Since the 2008 Lehman Shock, most larger firms (foreign firms in particular) are more reluctant to give internships, because they realize that the real expense of having an intern is not the cost of the desk and infrastructure, but instead lies in the care and attention the intern needs from existing personnel in order to get trained. This means that internships with foreign firms are more typically found with smaller firms that are looking for a helping hand in return for providing training and experience. However, as FujiStaff and Pasona believe, there is an increasing number of Japanese companies who are committed to going global and therefore have made foreign interns part of their strategic action list.
Last month, Mitsui Chemical announced that has started an internship program for Indian post-grad students in chemistry-related courses to work at company plants in Tokyo and Osaka. Unlike internships at other companies, the Mitsui opportunities will be just 4 weeks a year, but come with a daily “salary” of ¥3,000 as well as a flat ¥300,000 payment to cover air travel, accommodation, an food.
company that has an internship program is Rakuten, which last year took on 300 new graduates. In their case, the internships are available for certain job classifications while the students are still at school. Their main requirement is that if a foreign student is applying, that they are able to communicate in Japanese — an interesting requirement, given that the company has now committed to making all internal communication in English by 2012.
We have seen a number of less well-known companies work aggressively to bring in foreign students in Japan with the intention of signing them up as employees. One major SI firm we are familiar with has dozens of Chinese trainees and some full-time employees, with the stated goal of sending them back to China in the future to represent the company with their Japanese customers in that country. We imagine that this same scenario is happening amongst the hundreds of Japanese corporations who are now expanding breakneck into Asia and elsewhere. It’s not hard, then, to see who is hiring those 10,000 foreign students a year.
Within the LINC Media and Japan Inc. Holdings groups of companies, we offer 5-10 internships a year and most of these interns enter the business during the Northern hemisphere summer break and/or immediately after the graduation months of April and October. We typically take on interns for 2-3 months and go on to hire about 20% of those people who want to stay after completing their term. Of the remaining 80%, most are just interning for the summer holidays, and go back to school after they are done.
Like most smaller companies, we do not pay our interns, but do provide commutation and other allowances depending on circumstance and the duration of the internship. So, needless to say one of our most important questions when getting an internship request from abroad is to ask the person if they have some means of support, or family to stay with, while they are in Japan. If they do not, then we are unable to take them on.
Then there is the “other” definition of internship in Japan: which is one of virtual slave labor. We are referring to the foreign trainee and technical internship program established by the government some years ago to allow 200,000 young people from developing countries to learn on-the-job at Japanese companies. After three years of such “work experience” these workers are supposed to return home again, armed with their new-found knowledge.
Of course the reality is sadly different, as was exposed through the death through overwork (“Karoshi”) of a 31-year old Chinese trainee in June 2008. Last week the Ibaraki Labor Standards Office found that the trainee died from overwork, after having done over 100 hours of overtime every month in the three months prior to his death. The Japan International Training Cooperation Organization reckons that 35 trainees died during FY2008, with 16 dying of causes symptomatic of karoshi. In FY2009, 27 such trainees died.
These government-sponsored traineeships/internships do come with salary, which we suppose makes them marginally better than a standard internship — except for the fact that they run for years versus weeks. But the amounts paid are so low, typically around ¥100,000/month for the first couple of years, that they can hardly be conducive to learning on the job. Rather they create an atmosphere of desperation that obviates any original purpose for people coming in on the program. Instead, the interns become a source of underpaid labor for small manufacturers who would otherwise go out of business.
Genuine internships on the other hand are supposed to be a fair and reasonable trade of personal effort by the intern over a short period of time in return for training and work experience by the company offering the internship. While some people think that 3-4 weeks should be long enough for an internship we think that three months is a more reasonable exchange. Our reasoning for this is simple: if the purpose of the internship is to gain meaningful experience and to perhaps prove oneself to a future employer, anything that can be taught in less than 2-3 months is probably not going to amount to much of value to either the intern or the employer.
There has to be a limit, of course, and rationally, this would be the amount of time that it takes for a potential employer to decide that the intern is the right material for a hire. 2-3 months is plenty of time to make this decision, and by no coincidence is also the same amount of time given to a company to decide whether or not to retain or fire a new employee. It also happens to be the amount of time most students have off before having to return to school after the summer break.
The question inevitably comes up of whether interns should be paid, especially since regular new employees are paid for their services. Our response is that if the person applying for the internship has no obvious skills or experience to warrant their applying for an open position, the chance of companies even interviewing such people is low. Whereas, someone starting on an internship is able to show growth and on-the-job aptitude, and so have a chance to convince those they are working with that it is worthwhile extending a job offer to them.
Before anyone complains how evil unpaid internships are, consider that not only are they completely voluntary, but that many well-known organizations provide such opportunities. You may be surprised, for example, to know that the U.S. government’s Foreign Commercial Service in Japan offers unpaid internships. To see more on this, go to:
U.S. Commercial Program – Internship
Now that only 80% of this year’s university graduates were able to land jobs before leaving school, maybe it’s time for the unemployed 20%, the government, and smaller Japanese companies to come up with a standardized internship/work experience program that will help both sides. In particular, the government needs to recognize the difference between internships and paid employment, so that issues of compensation are dealt with and all parties to realize the full value of the internship system. They also need to introduce a more specific type of visa for foreign interns, who otherwise have to come in either on a visitors visa (in which case they definitely can’t get paid) or they are forced into one of the above mentioned much abused trainee visas.