Companies offer hot-shot interns top dollar

Some interns here earn as much as $10,000 a month, but others work for free

Ms Gao He, 21, a fourth-year Nanyang Technological University student, interned at a multinational investment banking firm this year and was paid more than $4,000 a month.
Ms Gao He, 21, a fourth-year Nanyang Technological University student, interned at a multinational investment banking firm this year and was paid more than $4,000 a month.PHOTO: COURTESY OF GAO HE

Intern wages came under the international spotlight recently after the media reported that a 22-year-old unpaid intern with the United Nations lived in a tent in Geneva, Switzerland, because he could not afford the city's expensive rents.

Mr David Hyde, who is from New Zealand, resigned after his story went global and called on interns worldwide to stand up for their rights to "equal pay for equal work".

But while internships may often be associated with low or no pay, there are a handful of interns who do earn big bucks.

With the global race for talent heating up, some companies are willing to offer top dollar to undergraduates. Some interns in Singapore have been known to earn up to $10,000 a month during their internships. Some even get freebies such as concert and theatre tickets. For those who do overseas stints, they may be housed in four-star hotels.

Human resource experts tell Life that these are carrots dangled by companies that hope interns will sign on as full-time employees after they graduate.

Mr Erman Tan, 51, president of the Singapore Human Resources Institute, says: "There is often a lot of competition among companies to attract the best and the brightest. Paying interns higher wages is one of the key ways to attract talent."

Adds Mr Ian Grundy, 50, the Asia-Pacific head of marketing and communications for recruitment consultant Adecco Group: "An increasing number of companies really value what interns can offer. Interns are very competent in project work and can successfully see a project from start to finish. This is win-win for both the intern and the company."

Highly paid interns, however, are few. According to experts, the average monthly salary of an intern here is $600 to $1,000.

Students at the East Asia Institute of Management get about $700 a month during their internships at hotels here. The institute's executive director Er Kwong Wah, 69, says: "Ten thousand dollars a month for an intern is amazing. We do not have any intern earning that kind of money."

So what kind of internship positions can command such high pay?

Experts say they would typically have specialised skills - such as computer or software engineering skills - to meet the short-term project needs of companies.

One group of employers offering top dollar is big tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Twitter, say experts. Another would be large investment banks such as J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

When contacted, these companies either did not reply to queries or did not want to comment on salary matters.

According to listings on InternSG, a Web portal for internships here, the three best-paying internship positions here are mobile app developers, game developers and marketing and communications executives.

But experts warn that while the money is good, expectations can be high. Mr David Leong, 45, managing director of recruitment firm PeopleWorldwide Consulting, says: "Interns who get paid high salaries can be expected to work long, irregular hours and do intense work."

Ms Gao He, 21, a fourth-year computer engineering student at Nanyang Technological University, who minors in business, was paid more than $4,000 a month during her 10-week internship at a multinational investment banking firm this year.

She says: "The working hours in investment banks are longer than those in other industries." Her working hours were 9am to 6pm, but she voluntarily stayed until 8 or 9pm to work on her projects or use the company's online learning portals.

"There were meetings with our US or UK counterparts, which were held after office hours because of the time difference and I attended some of these for my own growth."

Then there are internships that pay nothing at all, often in the fashion industry or non-profit sector.

Mr Leong says: "Interns in the fashion industry are likely drawn to the glamour. They get to meet fashionistas, celebrities, models and are promised endless learning opportunities. For these interns, the glamour is enough for them to forgo a pay cheque."

High pay, free tablet, private concert

NTU student Zhou Xinzi, 22, enjoyed free hikes and was offered tickets to baseball games when he interned at Microsoft in the United States. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

He earned a high four-figure monthly salary, was given a free tablet worth over $800, was regularly offered free tickets to baseball games and even attended a private concert by Maroon 5.

And Mr Zhou Xinzi, a fourth-year computer engineering student at Nanyang Technological University, has not even graduated. The 22- year-old enjoyed the high pay and perks during a three-month internship at the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, in the United States.

Mr Zhou, who was on the Dean's List, says: "At Microsoft, they really treat the interns very well. I think it's partly because they want to encourage us to sign on full-time. But I think it's also the culture in the US to pay interns almost as much as full-timers."

To secure the internship, which lasted from June to August this year, he had to pass four rounds of interviews in October last year at Microsoft's Singapore office in Marina Bay. During the interviews, he was told to solve coding problems and write computer programmes on sheets of paper on the spot.

He recalls: "There were 20 to 30 candidates. Some flew in from neighbouring countries. So when I was chosen, I felt so happy."

He does not know if there was more than one internship position available.

He flew to the US on a Korean Air flight that was paid for by Microsoft and was housed in a two-bedroom apartment in Seattle at a subsidised rate.

He declines to reveal his salary, but the monthly average salary posted for his position on - where professionals post their earnings anonymously - is US$6,733 (S$9,535).

According to the website, the average monthly pay for a full-time software engineer in Singapore is about $4,200.

He says he saved most of his earnings, although he did buy presents for his parents in Guangdong, China, and his girlfriend, who is also a Chinese national studying in Singapore. His mother is a teacher and his father a human resource manager.

During his internship, he worked at least eight hours a day, five days a week, mainly developing a feature for Office Online, a Web-based version of Microsoft Office that allows users to create and edit files such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents.

He says: "The job was challenging. I had to familiarise myself with the product quickly so I can improve it. There was a mentor to help me, but if I got stuck, I had to stay longer in the office because I don't have access to the office network from home.

"But knowing that my code is now running in the server and used by millions of people makes me proud."

On weekends, he enjoyed a slew of activities - from day hiking trips at the nearby Mount Rainier to team-bonding events such as Puzzle Day - all paid for by Microsoft.

His fondest memory was catching American pop rock band Maroon 5 in a concert organised specially for Microsoft interns.He says he stood just metres from frontman Adam Levine.

"We didn't know there was going to be a concert. All the interns - there were at least 1,000 of us - were just put on shuttle buses and sent to a park where there was free beer and food," he recalls.

"Then, at about 8pm, the band showed up and we all went wild. I love their songs Sugar and Payphone."

He says there were two other students from Singapore universities who were also interning at Microsoft then.

A spokesman for Microsoft says the company runs an internship programme in Redmond and adds: "We hope to convert the interns to full-time hires or nurture them into technology evangelists."

Expectations and projects are aligned to real full-time job requirements and competencies during the internship, the spokesman adds.

"We want our interns to experience the entire spectrum of being a full-time Microsoft employee. We give them full access to our internal tools, encourage them to try out products, services and employee perks such as flexible working arrangements and robust compensation."

Mr Zhou, who has completed one other internship in Singapore, says he enjoyed his stint at Microsoft more.

"It's a pity Microsoft does not have a development centre in Singapore. If it did, I would sign on full-time immediately."

Working for free for priceless experience

Ms Tan Qian Ying, a fourth-year psychology student at NUS, did an unpaid internship with Envisage Education, a social enterprise, in July last year. ST PHOTO: BENSON ANG

She was not paid for her internship, but the non-monetary benefits she got from it were priceless.

Not only did Ms Tan Qian Ying, a fourth-year psychology student at the National University of Singapore, make many new friends, she also learnt how to set up a business.

In July last year, the 22-year-old did a one-month internship at Envisage Education, a social enterprise which encourages and supports youth to run their own social enterprise projects.

She chose to work there as she was curious about the prospects in the education sector.

For five days a week, she worked from 9.30am to 5pm at Envisage's office at *Scape. Her job involved writing a 50-page guidebook on social entrepreneurship that is currently being used in the organisation's programmes and planning and facilitating the free annual series of workshops, Gen.SE (short for "Generation Social Enterprise"), which encourages young people to learn about social entrepreneurship.

One of the most memorable experiences for Ms Tan was sitting in during the workshops and listening to the speakers.

She says: "One of the speakers who inspired me was Ms Leona Leong, who founded Aii Singapore, a corporate gift-giving company that employs people with disabilities and the under-privileged.

"These people can find it hard to find regular work, so I'm inspired by how her business helps them to be employed. She motivated me to want to start my own social enterprise in the future."

The highlight of her internship was when Envisage's managing director Stanley Chia, 28, invited about 20 interns - both past and present - to his home in Serangoon for a party near the end of her stint.

"He cooked meatball pasta, mushroom aglio olio and clam chowder for the group and they played card games such as Saboteur. Until this day, we're still friends with the boss and one another."

The only downside for her was not getting an allowance for transport or meals.

"My daily expenses accumulated after a while, but I kept them low by taking the MRT and eating at food courts."

She lives in a five-room flat in Woodlands with her sales director father, her student care teacher mother and 28-year-old brother, who is a regular in the army.

She says: "Initially, my parents were unhappy that I took an unpaid internship. They preferred me to continue giving tuition instead, which would allow me to earn about $500 a month.

"But they let me make my own decisions and I think they are happy I learnt so much about social enterprises in such a short time."

Her former boss, Mr Chia, says: "The internship may be unpaid, but it is still a good opportunity to learn and meet like-minded people. I'm glad Qian Ying explored an issue close to her heart, gained skills which can help her in the future and had fun at the same time."

$1,000 a month is within expectation

Ms Tan Yi Ting 21, a third-year accountancy student at SMU, interned at CIMB Bank from May to July. PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Ms Tan Yi Ting may be only 21 and still in school. But she does have some sensible advice for her peers: When you have no work experience or have yet to pick up any real skills, you should not expect a high salary.

The third-year accountancy student at the Singapore Management University interned at CIMB Bank from May to July this year.

During her 10-week stint, she was paid about $1,000 a month. She worked from 9am to 6pm with a one-hour lunch break, from Monday to Friday at the bank's office in Raffles Place.

She says: "An internship is a chance to gain experience and learn about the company. Early in your career, money should not be your main motivator."

Mr Michael Chee, head of human resource and administration at CIMB Singapore, says that under the bank's exclusive internship programme, interns learn about the financial industry via on-the-job learning in the department they are assigned to.

"They also get to hone practical skills such as project management via group assignments and classroom learning. Interns also get assigned a buddy - a senior bank officer - who is fully dedicated to guiding and mentoring them during their internship."

Ms Tan says she attended training sessions to learn about the bank's processes and how to fill up various forms. She also sat in during department and regional meetings, where issues related to the bank's processes were discussed.

She recalls: "I only observed the meeting and I didn't understand many of the terms used. Thankfully, I could clarify my questions with my mentor afterwards."

One of her key tasks was to submit a report on trends in the oil and gas industry at the end of her internship. With two other interns, she also worked on a project to improve customers' experience at the bank's branches.

She says: "We interviewed bank staff to understand the issues they face, such as having enough room in the branch to accommodate all the customers during promotions. The project gave us a clearer idea of what makes a memorable and enjoyable experience for customers."

Ms Tan lives with her sales director father and housewife mother in a terrace house in Kembangan.

She was happy with her pay as an intern.

"Considering that I didn't have many skills to offer to the bank and no banking experience, what they paid me was more than fair."

She spent her pay on daily expenses and a trip to Vietnam with her schoolmates last month.

"Now that I have more experience, hopefully, I will be able to earn more during my next internship."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 13, 2015, with the headline 'Hot- shot interns'. Subscribe