Western Graduates Head To China for Internships

Asian Work Experience Helps Résumés Stand Out in Tough Market.

In a crowded job market, having work experience in China on your résumé can make a big difference.

Recent graduates in industries from engineering to finance in both Europe and the U.S. are making their way to the country, hoping to land their first jobs faster and more easily than their competitors.

Lesmes Gutiérrez, a 23-year-old engineering graduate of Loughborough University in the U.K., who had a two-week placement with Baoshang Bank in Beijing late last year, says potential employers are more impressed with those who can demonstrate a willingness to move out of their comfort zone. “It’s quite a big step to go somewhere not knowing what to expect. The idea of going to China calls for awareness and the willingness to relocate,” which could be appealing to employers, he says.

And he’s not the only one to have spotted the competitive advantage work experience in China may bring. Applications for internships there have more than tripled over the past couple of years, according to figures released by CRCC Asia, a London-based recruitment consultancy.

A woman reads information during a job fair for foreigners in Beijing. Recent graduates are flocking to China in an attempt to boost their resumes: Applications for internships there have more than tripled over the past couple of years, according to figures released by CRCC Asia, a London-based recruitment consultancy.

In 2009, the company received about 250 applications, compared with more than 1,000 so far this year, says CRCC Asia Director Daniel Nivern. “The Chinese economy is booming and it’s very appealing for graduates to get an insight as to why that’s happening by visiting [the country]. With the job market depressed in the U.K. and the U.S., China offers a great opportunity to get a long-term career,” he says.

He says China has also come into focus for Western companies looking to grow. “A lot of businesses realize that if they want to be part of the global economy, they need to be going into China,” adds Mr. Nivern, whose company has mostly placed recent graduates from the U.K. and the U.S., but also from other European countries like Spain, in finance, marketing and legal firms in China.

“I have been told repeatedly that my work in China looks great on my résumé,” says Alexander Lesher, who recently finished a master’s degree in Environmental Engineering at the Indiana-based Purdue University and subsequently undertook a two-month internship at environmental company Nanjing Zhuangxun Tech Co. in Beijing.

He says his experience there gave him a greater awareness of cultural differences. He says he was surprised by the way business people interacted during lunches. During a working meal with a group of about eight people, a single person would buy enough food to completely fill the table and would go out of his or her way to make sure everyone ate as much as possible. “Then they would act humbly, as if they have done nothing,” he says. “That wouldn’t happen in the U.S.”

Others visiting China for the first time found the first few days disconcerting. Sophie Corcut, a former unpaid marketing intern at fair-trade company Shangrila Farms, says: “Living in Beijing and dealing with a totally foreign language was challenging. Things like crossing the road or buying things in the supermarket or counting the numbers were suddenly difficult.” But it was precisely that challenge that Ms. Corcut, who borrowed from her parents to fund her trip, was looking for. “It was brilliant. I was looking for that stimulation.”

Ms. Corcut, who now has a full-time job with management consultancy Accenture in London, says her two months’ work experience in China was more rewarding than previous internships she had done in her native England. “I have done a lot of work experience in the U.K., and they actually don’t need you. You are just there, and they are constantly trying to find you work. You are given something very menial,” she says. “But in China they were actually using me. I was lucky to be interning for a young company that needed a lot of help.”

She says initially after graduation she wasn’t sure what to do professionally with a degree in history and French, but in China she learned how to use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop and started designing promotional leaflets for the company. “I tried to get a big sales push and tried to get new clients,” she says.

But some recruiters are swift to point out that China isn’t the only place that will help students stand out. Chris McCarthy, of London-based recruiter Hays PLC, says it isn’t China experience per se that employers are looking for but evidence that potential employees are willing to challenge themselves.

“If Europe and the U.S. are going to maintain their place in global business people need to be prepared to put on a back pack” and head for less familiar places, says Mr. McCarthy. “It is evidence that people are willing to challenge themselves, not specifically China, that employers are looking for. They want to see a bit of ambition and entrepreneurship,” he says.

He adds, however, that China can be of particular relevance to employers looking for people with experience in emerging markets.

But while experience in China may be invaluable, some obstacles can seem formidable. Mr. Gutiérrez, working at a microlender, struggled with Chinese. “The problem with a rural bank is that Chinese is its first language and English is not used at all. When it came to producing reports on the fluctuation of gold prices, there were no previous templates I could use so I had to rely on an intuitive process and then improve the subsequent reports based on feedback.”

Despite some barriers, the benefits run in both directions, and companies in China are profiting from the surge in interest from potential interns in the West. Thomas Cao, chief executive of Beijing-based Broad Global Venture Capital Co., says he finds real value in the work done by interns.

“We look for graduates to come and do real work. We have asked our interns, for example, to help us analyze the chances of companies going public on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange,” he says.

Ultimately, says Mr. Lesher, going to China was about turning a personal fascination into a tangible benefit for his career. “The country was just a point of personal fascination. I wasn’t sure how it would work out.”

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