SINGAPORE: More undergraduates in Singapore are expanding their portfolios by doing overseas internships, as competition heats up in the job market.
Darick Chen, a fresh graduate from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), secured a full-time offer from Goldman Sachs Singapore after completing internships with the firm in London and Hong Kong.
“In larger markets like London and Hong Kong, you're exposed to more financial deals and more complex deals that are going on. These things definitely boost our technical competencies,” he told Channel NewsAsia.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing, as he found himself having to work extra hard to prove himself.
“I think it's only natural for people to question - if you're new to this country, you might be foreign to how this country is run, foreign to how business is run.”
So in Hong Kong, he hunkered down and practised his Mandarin in order to deliver presentations to Chinese clients.
And it was this mix of soft skills and technical competencies that he said gave him a better standing in the job market.
At Mr Chen’s alma mater, an average of 130 students from the graduating cohort have gone for overseas internships and work attachments each year in the last three years.
Eight in 10 NTU undergraduates have at least one overseas exposure during the course of their studies.
A handful have received job offers from the overseas companies they interned with, and others from companies located in Singapore.
Over at the National University of Singapore (NUS), students completed close to 490 internships in over 40 countries between August 2016 and July 2017.
The school has seen a 22 per cent year-on-year increase in overseas internships completed in the last three academic years.
NUS Senior Vice-Provost (Undergraduate Education), Professor Bernard Tan, said this is largely due to greater interest among students to gain global exposure as well as the university’s efforts to expand internship opportunities abroad.
Meanwhile, Singapore Management University (SMU) has made it mandatory for all its students to attain some form of overseas exposure before they can graduate, starting from this August. This can be in the form of exchange programmes and internships.
About 150 to 250 SMU students each year have gone on an overseas internship in the last five years.
Cultural intelligence expert and associate dean at NTU’s Nanyang Business School, Professor Guido Gianasso, said students with overseas internship experience are more attractive for employers.
“The decision of going abroad for an internship indicates a number of personality traits; attitudes which are very important for employers. For example, the openness to experience, intellectual curiosity, extraversion. Also the courage and ability to adapt to different environments,” he said.
Professor Guido added that these are indicators of leadership potential, which employers look for.
The universities have also expanded overseas programmes in Southeast Asia, China, India and the Middle East to tap their high growth potential.
Professor Guido said Vietnam and Cambodia are particularly keen on young finance professionals from Singapore who are bilingual, as they can manage Chinese investors.
At NUS, a third of overseas internships completed in the last academic year were in Southeast Asia, while another one-third were in East Asia.
NUS graduate Stephanie Lam was one of those who opted for an internship in the region instead of a traditional destination like the US or Europe.
The marketing intern at Unilever Philippines told Channel NewsAsia that she had to navigate cultural nuances while overseas - an experience she wouldn’t have had in Singapore.
“If I were to do an internship with a consumer-facing role in Singapore, the market is significantly smaller as opposed to if I did one in the Philippines or in a regional Southeast Asian market. I think this market is also exceptionally interesting because it's still developing and growing very fast. Because of that, there are many changes and nuances that people haven't caught onto yet, and I really wanted a bite of that.”
One cultural difference she observed was how the market in the Philippines emphasised relationships.
“So we really had to go down to talk to people, engage with them and build stronger relationships before working on a project. And that made the projects more meaningful.”
Like Mr Chen, though she initially struggled to adapt to a foreign environment, the experience made her stronger - and helped her land a job at the firm’s Singapore office.
“It's definitely helped that the projects are very autonomous. So we have control, as compared to having a lot of hand-holding in Singapore. So because it's more hands-on, lessons that we learn - maybe small mistakes we make and we fix - are a lot closer to heart,” she said.
An annual survey of graduates from NUS, NTU and SMU found that 78.4 per cent of students secured full-time positions within six months of graduation last year.
This was a slight dip from 79.9 per cent in 2016.
While the Manpower Ministry has projected labour demand to expand this year, it warned that this will be uneven across sectors.
Wanting to remain competitive was one reason Mr Chen and Ms Lam applied for internships abroad.
And these attachments have also given them the confidence to venture abroad for longer postings in the future.
“The teams from the regional markets are largely similar to the place that I interned at in the Philippines. So having experienced how it's like to work in those local markets will help me understand where my colleagues will be coming from when I work in a regional office,” Ms Lam said.