HONG KONG — Angelika Lisek, a Polish finance student at the University of Glasgow, is no stranger to working during the holidays: waiting tables, selling books door to door or helping her mother at her architecture company. But she knows that her two-month internship in Shanghai last year is what will give her a competitive edge.
“We are ambitious — we don’t want to relax,” said Ms. Lisek, describing students like her who seek internships abroad. She was in her second year at the university when she saw a work opportunity in China.
“I had never been to Asia, and it was a new challenge,” said Ms. Lisek, who is 23 and is now attending a one-year exchange program at the University of Hong Kong.
Students are keenly aware of the importance of work experience in a competitive job market. And China, whose economy has had robust growth, increasingly looks like an attractive option.
Third-party internship organizers that match students with Chinese companies report a rising number of applicants and interns.
Absolute Internship, which placed Ms. Lisek at a U.S. wealth management firm, will send around 700 interns to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong this year, up from 250 last year.
“Business is booming, and we can hardly keep up with the demands,” Fredrik van Huynh, director of Absolute Internship, which he co-founded in 2009, said from London. “We received five times more applicants for internships this year compared with last year.”
CRCC Asia, a similar company, has seen its business grow as well. Founded in 2006, it started a pilot program in 2007 with about 20 interns, said Edward Holroyd Pearce, a co-director of CRCC Asia, based in London.
The company is expecting to send 2,000 students to Beijing and Shanghai this year, up from 1,200 last year.
“The time of spending three months on the beach is pretty much over,” Mr. Holroyd Pearce said. “Now every experience counts.”
While both companies offer internships in a wide range of industries, from law to design, they say that students studying business, finance and marketing are the majority of the participants.
The internships are unpaid, partly because of China’s visa rules. The participants enter the country on the type of visa usually used for business trips, and not on work or student visas. On top of that, students should be prepared to pay a few thousand dollars to take part, not including airfare.
CRCC Asia and Absolute Internship charge almost identical fees, about $2,900 to $4,900 for their Beijing and Shanghai programs, which run one to three months. Absolute Internship also has a two-month Hong Kong internship program that costs $5,999. Both companies say they give some scholarships, and the CRCC Web site also gives suggestions for other financing options.
The fees include visas, orientation, housing in a serviced apartment, local transportation and social events, like networking activities and weekend sightseeing trips. CRCC also provides Chinese-language lessons.
Both companies say that they do not receive fees from the companies in China.
Absolute Internship and CRCC Asia screen and interview candidates, and about 20 percent to 40 percent of them are accepted and matched with “host companies.”
Both work with University College London and the University of Technology, Sydney. CRCC also collaborates with the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas and the University of Texas at Austin. Absolute Internship, meanwhile, works with the University of Westminster and some universities in the United States.
Alex Williams, 23, a recent graduate from the University of West England, Bristol, who obtained an internship in Beijing in 2010 through CRCC Asia, said his experience was worth it.
“It was amazing, and it blew my expectations away,” Mr. Williams said about his two-month-long stint at a Chinese investment banking firm. “They took me quite seriously, and they thought I was quite an asset. I was working in the company for just a few weeks, and they were throwing stuff at me. It would have taken me one year to get a similar experience in London.”
Ms. Lisek, the Polish finance student, said that there was a stereotype that interns just made photocopies or coffee but that she “had big responsibilities” during her internship in Shanghai, developing financial models for the company’s clients.
Unpaid internships have generated controversy, particularly in the West, where critics say that they favor wealthier students who can afford to work without being paid or, in this case, essentially pay thousands of dollars to work for no salary. Countries like the United States and Britain have moved to crack down on the practice, saying it violates labor laws.
Ms. Lisek, who will have a paid job at Absolute Internship in Shanghai this summer, said she did not mind working last summer, even though she received neither academic credit nor a paycheck. “All employers require experience,” she said. “Experience is more important than getting paid. I can think about salary after graduation.”
By immersing themselves in Chinese life, interns also learn about cultural differences firsthand. “Drinking with clients is important in China, while in Europe it isn’t such a big deal,” Mr. Williams said. “And lunch with clients can last for a couple hours.”
For Chinese companies like SMH International, a Shanghai marketing company that works with Absolute Internship, foreign interns are seen as assets.
“Although we are a Chinese company, our clients are mainly overseas,” said Robin Wang, the director of SMH, which represents U.S. agriculture products like California pistachios and Alaskan seafood. “We need a lot of people who understand international marketing.”
At CTR Market Research in Shanghai, where CRCC Asia places interns every year, foreign students help push the local employees to converse in English daily, said Chase B. Kusterer, client manager of media intelligence, who founded the internship program at the company.
He noticed that overseas interns tended to ask questions and give feedback during training sessions, a divergence from the local habit of taking notes and keeping quiet. “We are giving interns work experience in China,” he said, “and they enhance our culture.”
Mr. Williams, who is now working in a financial data firm in London, said his work experience in China “always came up in interviews.”
“People were immediately interested because it was something no one else had done,” he added. “It really stood out.”
Ms. Lisek agreed, saying: “The experience in Shanghai definitely stands out in my C.V. After Shanghai, I want to be there again. I definitely want to work in China.”
About the author: Yenni Kwok is a Hong Kong-based journalist who reports and writes about the happenings and changes in Asia, Europe and beyond for leading editorial and corporate publications. She has lived and worked in Indonesia, China, America, the Netherlands and Germany.