Is it advisable to seek internships and jobs through recruiting agencies if I am unsuccessful in my internship search?

A student asked me:

Is it advisable to seek internships and jobs through recruiting agencies if I am unsuccessful in my internship search?

First of all, you should be strategic in your choice of internships and part-time jobs. Don’t just do a job or an internship for the sake of it just because everyone seems to be doing one. It doesn’t reflect well on you if your CV has little to no coherence even if you have a long list of internships/jobs to show off.

Each internship or job that you take on should be strategically chosen so that you have the chance to gain specific experiences or be able to showcase certain achievements that will be valuable for what you want to do after graduation. If you cannot articulate how that internship/job is useful for you other than “I’m making money” or “I’m gaining experience” (in the vaguest sense without being able to articulate precisely the type of experience that you want to help you go to the next stage), then you should really take a step back and strategise.

Not all internships are equal. The really good ones are the kinds where the Universities have spoken to companies to make special training arrangements to ensure the intern really gains value (at least on paper – whether the company follows through or the supervisor you are attached to cares to do it, is a different matter). Some companies use internships to get cheap labour, or make interns do all the mundane and tedious tasks that no one really wants to do.

I personally don’t think going to agencies are worthwhile for an internship. They usually charge a commission, which often is a percentage of your first month’s pay. And you won’t always get what you want to do.

Here’s what I recommend you to do: if internship positions aren’t available, go reach out to companies, and convince them to create one for you. I’m saying this as someone who’s been talking to organisations to create internships for my students, I’ve come to realise that many companies want to hire interns, but they don’t always advertise that they need one because they don’t know if they can trust the student to be good. So they’d only take one on board if they believe they can trust you to do the work.

So in actuality, there is a huge market for interns that exists right now.

There is a government grant that local companies can apply for to pay for the internship salaries. So it costs local companies very little to take on an intern. What you can do is this: find a local company that you’d like to join, whether a startup or SME, research more about what they do, and send an e-mail to the boss or the head of HR, telling them how you are keen to do an internship with them and how you might be able to add value to them. If you make a convincing case, they will interview and they might consider giving you a chance. You can do the same for MNCs. They can’t tap on that government grant, but they can most definitely afford to bring in a few interns.

If you can’t get anything, then you should review your CV. I’ve come to realise that many students write terrible CVs that diminish their real abilities. Many can’t even write decent cover letters. You can ask your parents or people older than you for advice and tips for improvement (or Google – Google is your best teacher).

Or if you didn’t make it for interview, then you should read up about the do’s and don’ts of interviews and do a mock interview with someone who’s already in the workforce to give you feedback. Most of us aren’t very good with interviews. I screwed up my first job interview (The memory of embarrassment has stuck with me for life). Many people lack the self-reflexive awareness to know what they’ve done wrong. So if you’ve been trying and nothing’s been opening up for you, then please review your cover letters, CVs, and interview skills. These would be the things needing improvements.

If at the end of the day, you still can’t get anything, use the time to learn new skills on EdX or Coursera. It’s like playing RPG game. Many players spend a good amount of time levelling up before they take on the bosses. It’s the same idea with internship and job hunting.

A student asked a follow-up question:

I fear there’ll be a lot of students who will do what you suggested. So, even if I improve my skills, there’s a thousand others like me who will improve themselves as well. It’s like a small fry in a big ocean.

And can you elaborate how does one go about approaching companies to open up internship positions for us?

Let me be very frank. This kind of thinking – “I fear there’s a lot of students like me…” – is useless thinking.

I know people who say this and use it as an excuse not to do anything. In the most extreme case, a senior of mine went all hikikomori for 5 years after graduation with that exact thinking. Hikikomori is the Japanese term used to refer to those people who socially withdraw themselves from society and not leave the house. Yes, he was unemployed for 5 years, living off his family because he was so worried that he never gave himself a chance.

If you continue to entertain such anxious thoughts and do nothing, you won’t grow, you won’t get anyway. It then becomes a self-fulling prophecy where there won’t just be thousands like you, but thousands more who will be better than you.

So you must give yourself a chance. Give yourself hundreds, thousands of chances if you must!

Even if there are thousands like you, the very fact is that you need to be hungry to gain new experiences for your own personal growth. Just do it!

The aim is not to succeed and be better than others. The aim is to just improve yourself through that process and collect experiences along.

You’ll probably encounter many rejections along the way. BUT that’s important! In the process, you will gain a lot of valuable experiences like how to do stuff, what to avoid doing, etc. And the more you go through it, the better you become. You’ll be more confident, more savvy, and also a lot less anxious about these things. I remember fantastically screwing up my first interview. It’s so embarrassing that it’s burnt into my memory for life. But there I learnt, and I’m better at such things now.

If you want to reach out to companies to create internships for you, you need to create a value proposition – what can you offer to add value to the company? This means reading up a great deal about the company, what they do, their business model, etc. (whatever you can find – talk to people in that company if you have to), and then construct a portfolio through your CV (and past works if you have any) to show that you probably can do such things. In reality, very few people will compete with you to do this because (1) many don’t know you can do such things; and (2) not many people care enough to research companies thoroughly to be able to even make a strong value proposition to these companies.

If you don’t have a portfolio, at least show that you are very eager and willing to learn. The very fact that you have the courage to do something like this, the bosses will be very keen.

And cast your net wider ok? Don’t just aim for the big companies. There are many SMEs and start-ups urgently in need for interns and they’re not getting any because those thousands that you speak of are only interested in the big names. You’ll score a very good chance if you consider these companies. Many of them will be able to give you very interesting experiences because the lack of manpower in the company means everyone must know how to do everything. You’ll come out with a lot of experience from such an internship.

Author: Jonathan Y. H. Sim

Jonathan Sim is an Instructor with the Department of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He is passionate about teaching and he continues to research fun and innovative ways of engaging students to learn effectively. He has been teaching general education modules to a diverse range of undergraduate students and adult learners at the University.

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