Internships have long been seen as the stepping stone for students to enter the working world and have become almost a prerequisite in any programme of higher learning.
But there are still many issues and challenges that can cause both students and companies to stumble while navigating the crossover. How can the transition be made smoother and more useful for all parties? Prof Chin Beek Yoke, Dean, Industrial Partnership & Engagement, at the International Medical University (IMU), has some ideas on how institutes of higher learning can help to build bridges and be part of a long-term solution.
It seems like the perfect tool to introduce students to the nine-to-five life – an internship that allows them to have a taste of what companies expect from them.
At the same time, companies get to review potential individuals and how they may contribute before a permanent job offer is given.
It’s a win-win arrangement where both sides get to see if there’s a good fit before making further commitments.
Yet what was once a solid stepping stone, seems to have become a slippery rock that many trip over. Changing demands from fresh graduates, a work landscape with high mobility and a young workforce with different expectations of what work means has led to many disappointments – for both the individual and the company.
Students lose out because they find themselves as square pegs in round holes; companies lose out when newly onboarded staff leave after a few months on the job.
“Companies have shared with us that they are in a very precarious position as they have invested resources to train fresh graduates only for them to leave during their probation period because they don’t like it,” Prof Chin Beek Yoke said.
What has gone wrong?
Prof Chin points out that because internships tend to happen at the end of a student’s programme – right before they complete their examinations and go off on a well-deserved break – it is not the most ideal time to allow the experience to sink in, or for deeper reflection on career paths to happen.
By the time students return from vacations, they are so preoccupied with scrambling to land a job that more often than not, they end up in positions with misplaced expectations, clashes in direction, or even in personality.
Another reason is that students regard an internship as just another part of the curriculum.
“Students feel that they just have to make sure they attend and complete their internship because it is part of the programme.
They don’t realise that the internship is preparing them to work in the real world,” Prof Chin said.
There is a real need to find a space where students and companies can get a better sense of each other before either takes a leap of faith.
The question is: Can institutes of higher learning play a role and be part of the solution?
Bridging the gap
The answer is yes. It requires more time and energy from all parties – institutes, industry players and students – but the outcome will be well worth the outlay if done right.
Prof Chin explains the premise, starting with the challenge that so far, students and companies don’t have a platform to really get to know each other and build collaborative relationships except during career fairs – usually once-a-year affairs where students are overwhelmed with the many companies vying for attention.
These quick meet-and-greet sessions only give the parties involved rudimentary knowledge of each other. Students may be attracted to certain job descriptions but are not entirely sure what it entails. Companies see glimpses of potential but have no opportunity to explore further.
This is where the IMU has taken the initiative to come up with the Graduate Training Programme (GTP). The GTP is a collaborative effort between the IMU and partner industry players to expose students to the real world in a much deeper and more meaningful way.
It does not replace an internship but it is an additional format to enhance what already exists – a bridge between the stepping stones.
Under the GTP, industry partners work with the IMU to arrange talks and presentations with students in a more intimate setting where they can introduce their sector, company and the various opportunities available for students.
Students on the other hand, have the chance to really delve deep, ask questions and discover the different career paths they may be interested in.
According to Prof Chin, many students and parents are only exposed to the obvious career choices in the health professions, but there are countless other opportunities, for example, even insurance companies need graduates with medical backgrounds to interpret a doctor’s report when a claim is made.
The early bird gets the worm
This may still seem like nothing out of the ordinary, but here’s where the GTP is unique.
The GTP will see companies work with the university to engage students prior to their internship year, and will continue to connect with interested students across their years of study.
The GTP will open doors for mentorship, opportunities for students to observe hands-on research and other ongoing projects in a company.
By starting early, students get to explore their areas of interest from the beginning and are able to see real-world application of the theories they learn in class. When curiosity is piqued, learning will no longer be just about passing examinations and memorising formulas – it will be about gaining the skills they need to achieve tangible goals.
It is hoped that this mindset shift will advance not just individual graduates but lift the entire standard of the institute by encouraging proactiveness and healthy competition.
Allowing students and industry to build a relationship over the years, the programme then culminates in a placement after graduation at the company that matches their ambitions and personal direction.
Industry partners under the GTP also make a commitment to give the students whom they have been mentoring a job in the company once they graduate.
“This means guaranteed employability for these students,” Prof Chin said.
A programme such as the GTP will not only enrich the student-industry dynamic, it also acts as a conduit for institutes of higher learning to strengthen relationships with corporations.
As Prof Chin said, there is much to be gained when the academic sector can work closely with the industry.
For one, GTP companies are also members of the Industry Advisory Boards, where representatives from different sectors of the industry are invited to give feedback on the University’s curriculum.
This helps to keep curriculum updated with emergent technologies and ensure that what is taught is relevant to today’s working world.
There will also be more opportunities for research collaborations where the university can help to support industry advancements.
“For universities, research is at a discovery stage, we are testing a hypothesis. It may or may not work and it’s ok,” Prof Chin added, unlike companies which cannot afford to ignore return on investments.
She explains that universities such as Harvard have set up incubator laboratories that often work with the industry.
“It fosters good science and good research,” Prof Chin said.
The engagement with industry also offers not just students, but faculty to gain insights from beyond the classroom, where lecturers and professors will have the chance to arrange observational and learning visits to companies.
“Of course this is the perfect scenario,” Prof Chin said, embracing the challenge to navigate the bumps in the road ahead.
But the end vision is promising: students who are energised by the multi-dimensional nature of work life and contribute better to the companies they work with; industry that invests time and energy to cultivate a good future workforce while working with institutes to keep advancing the sector; and academic institutes that are on par with the latest advancements in the industry and are able to enhance the landscape through research initiatives.
It’s a bridge that will help smoother crossing between stepping stones; one with a promising three-way win: for the student, the industry and the university.
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