Huge rises in student fees and an uncertain jobs market are making youngsters and employers question the wisdom and long-term value of taking a gap year between school and university.
One expert, however, is very clear on the issue: Professor Richard Black, head of global studies at Sussex University, believes international work placements for young people are more valuable than ever.
Reflecting this, the university is launching a 12-week placement programme next spring for international placements as part of a degree course. This first pilot will enable second year students to work in places such as Bangladesh, Thailand and Cambodia as an integral part of their degree. The six students will have the opportunity to gain practical work-related skills.
According to Prof Black: “Research has shown that even a 12-week work programme abroad can enhance employability. The host organisation also benefits in that it gains an enthusiastic employee, increases its capacity and often forms a lasting relationship with a young person which can translate to future research projects or reciprocal schemes.”
Many employers are looking for an appetite for cross-border assignments from all employees and demonstrating an early capacity to do this can be very beneficial.
Prof Black stresses the placement process is a rigorous one: “We look for demonstrable skills in the first year – for example, campaigning or research – and match the student’s skills with those required by the host organisation, all within the context of the degree requirements. Linguistic proficiency is also important, French if working in Madagascar, for example.”
Young people who have found other routes to work abroad confirm the lasting benefits. There is a host of organisations to choose from. John Dalton, a junior doctor from Leeds, spent a total of four months working in Uganda both as a medical student and as a qualified doctor.
“My experience in Uganda not only opened my eyes to conditions otherwise only seen in textbooks but also to the reality of the challenges facing healthcare provision in developing countries,” he says. “It also led to a long-lasting relationship with the host hospital.” John chairs the Friends of Mengo Hospital UK.
International Citizen Service is a development programme that brings 18 to 25-year-olds together to fight poverty and make a difference. Funded by the Department for International Development, it works in 28 developing countries and by 2015 aims to recruit 7,000 UK young people.
The scheme is delivered through a consortium of development organisations led by VSO, working with Restless Development, International Service, Raleigh International, Tearfund and Progressio.
Christina Bryan, a former Restless Development ICS volunteer in South Africa believes: “The experience has opened doors for me and made me more appealing to employers. ICS shows you are someone who has volunteered their time to create positive change. It demonstrates you can take the initiative, work cross-culturally and are able to present, facilitate and manage young people.”
There are many other opportunities available for those looking to travel and work in the public sector. Careers Europe’s Exodus database details international work placement opportunities; subscribers include libraries, careers services, schools and universities.
There are few barriers for UK citizens seeking placements in EU member states, but outside the EU languages can be a handicap, along with strict requirements on work permits and visas. Some schemes offer help with this: Australia and New Zealand, for example, operate working holiday visa systems enabling young people to enter the country for up to one year and work for parts of that time.
Specific programmes include:
● The Leonardo programme funded by the European Commission. This can provide funds for European work placements of up to 39 weeks via a university, college or training provider. The European parliament encourages applications from people with disabilities.
The commission offers two types of traineeships for graduates with language skills – either a translation or an administrative traineeship. The work is mostly based in Brussels or Luxembourg and each trainee is entitled to an adviser and living allowance and can claim travel expenses.
● The English Language Assistants Programme places undergraduates and recent graduates in colleges in 15 countries for one academic year, including China.
● The Association Internationale des Etudiants en Sciences Economiques et Commerciales is student-run and arranges traineeships in its Work Abroad programme of up to 18 months.
● Students of science, engineering, technology and the applied arts can also apply for an IAESTE placement in more than 80 countries. Students pay their own travel costs but employers pay a salary to cover living expenses during the eight to 12 weeks.
● Those seeking placements in North America can approach the Council on International Educational Exchanges which runs internship, teaching, work and travel programmes. The Internship USA programme helps match internships to study areas while the Internship Canada programme lasts for one year and is also open to gap-year students.
● The Professional Career Training USA programme allows students, graduates and young professionals to train anywhere in the US for up to 18 months in a field related to their career.
● For those keen on the New York area, the Mountbatten Internship Programme provides practical training placements for graduates under 29 years of age for up to 12 months.
● For young people wishing to work in criminal justice, John Scott, interim secretary general of CEP, the probation organisation in Europe, advises that most probation services internationally have volunteer schemes allowing people to work under the guidance of probation staff. Some of these services have internships but these tend to be for trainees within the country itself.
● The Foreign and Commonwealth Office runs a variety of UK schemes but internship opportunities abroad are usually advertised by individual embassies, high commissions or consulates.
Although international work placements are short-term, they should be taken as seriously as any job, with both parties upholding the “contract”. Lauren Hendrie at Careers Europe worked in Paris for two years after graduating and advises: “Taking a placement abroad is an investment and can seriously enhance employment prospects.
“To ensure you make the most of your experience, it is important to arrive in the new country fully prepared and well informed. Before taking any placement abroad you need to be independent, adaptable and open-minded, you also need to do some careful research.
“Finding out about the conditions of your placement in terms of pay, hours, accommodation, as well as every-day cultural and linguistic differences, will help you to make a smooth transition into life abroad.”
Young people should ensure they have the commitment and appropriate support networks to maximise opportunities, as leaving a placement early can have a serious impact on the host organisation. Youngsters should heed professional guidance and also talk to previous interns.