Bridging the gap: Why taking an overseas internship could really boost your prospects

Internships can be a springboard into a high-flying career. But with increasing competition for fewer spots, how best can ambitious youngsters get a foothold in the corporate market?

The feeling among many City firms is that recent graduates may be lacking in the necessary soft skills to enable them to compete in the workplace. New recruits with no work history invariably take longer to acclimatise to a professional environment; savvy employers naturally want candidates whom they know will add value sooner rather than later. The challenge for the career-focused student is how to obtain that CV-bolstering professional work experience. Those going it alone can face a hard slog; formal internship exchange programmes such as those offered by the London and New York-based Mountbatten Institute are set out to enable a practical kind of cross-cultural exchange, matching ambitious young professionals in the UK and US with companies who can put their skills to work and provide them with valuable exposure to international business.

Law graduate Vinita Addy took part in the Mountbatten programme from September 2009 – 2010, working at The Roth PLLC, a successful small-scale firm based in New York.

“I wanted to differentiate myself from the crowd of those chasing training contracts,” she explains. “After completing my LPC in 2007 I spent two years working as a paralegal for various firms and a law publishing company. The recession had impacted everything, so I applied for the programme in the hope of getting some high-end experience abroad.”

Making the leap overseas can also yield opportunities to take on higher levels of responsibility and tackle roles that can showcase an individual’s abilities. “I feel very lucky to have had a boss who wanted to help me develop my interests,” she says. “I worked directly under the managing partner in a variety of capacities from basic administration to attending court for trial, liaising with clients and reconciling the firm’s accounts, which helped shape and inform my idea of what I wanted to do with my career as a whole.”

From a personal development standpoint, time spent in industry will naturally broaden young graduates’ perspectives on their field and what it is precisely they would like to achieve within it. Vinita believes the experience to have been greatly beneficial.

“In every interview I’ve had since returning, everyone wants to know about my work in New York,” she says. She has recently started a career with an international asset management company working in a role that combines legal and compliance, something that she attributes to the professional insight she gained from her time in America.

Moreover, with 65 per cent of respondents in a survey of UK employers stating that they would favour applicants with overseas experience, working abroad seems an obvious step towards increasing a candidate’s marketability in a crowded field. Beyond the first crucial years after starting out, the benefits of international experience can have repercussions throughout the lifespan of a career.

Time spent in an overseas sector is more and more becoming a necessity for applicants to executive-level posts; Greg Duncan, a former marketing VP for Pfizer, states that international work experience is “now part of the pedigree we look for in identifying talent for our organisation. In the future, international experience will be the rule, not the exception.”

As businesses look to expand and strengthen their links across national borders, professionals with experience of a multiplicity of variant business cultures will be in increased demand. Tim Schantz , a former international financier and now director of the Mountbatten Institute’s New York Office, believes that this means time away from home can only be beneficial for the ambitious young professional.

“Now more than ever, meaningful on-the-ground experience in international markets is essential to career progression in most globally-orientated industries. In addition to the clear benefits of deeper cross-cultural understanding and fresh global perspectives, time spent away from head office can often offer more challenging work environments with greater responsibilities and more wide-ranging involvement in larger corporate issues.”

Candidates who have experience of immersion in a foreign business environment benefit from the recognition of the partiality of their ‘home’ working culture and can better appreciate alternative approaches and problem-solving tactics that those who have been trained up in a single set of methodologies. An appreciation of cultural bias and an understanding that one country’s model of business practice doesn’t perhaps function equally across national borders is an impressive asset for any employee, as Jo Harvey, Sponsorship Director for the Mountbatten Institute in NY, is quick to recognise.

“Developing skills for life and work is now a lifelong pursuit, but gaining exposure in a international work environment and all that goes along with that, leaving friends, family and environments known for the unknown, develops powerful talent for not only global organisations but for society,” she says.

Overseas internships constitute the kind of holistic experience that cannot be taught from a book, and this is something that is being increasingly noted throughout the sphere of industry.

The programme gives participants an opportunity to experience living abroad and get involved in local community projects whilst earning a wage and studying for a formal business qualification. It is recognised that candidates who have spent time working abroad are more inclined to be reflective and able to engage intellectually and creatively with the system they are in, reinforcing the view that however far modes of formal study can inform professionals as to foreign business, there is no substitute for hands-on experience. Tom Griffiths, co-founder and vice-president of transatlantic internet start-up Hubdub has the final say: “Ultimately, internships of any sort demonstrate initiative, and someone who has been ambitious and confident enough to pursue that experience outside of their home country and comfort zone is always going to stand out from the pack.”

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