Undergrads scramble for internships amid hiring freeze

Universities monitoring impact of pandemic on opportunities, helping to secure remote work options

Singapore Management University business student Hoo Xuan Ting had plans to be in the heart of San Francisco's business district on an internship with education management technology firm Going Merry. But because of the Covid-19 pandemic, she has bee
Singapore Management University business student Hoo Xuan Ting had plans to be in the heart of San Francisco's business district on an internship with education management technology firm Going Merry. But because of the Covid-19 pandemic, she has been working for the firm mostly from her bedroom in Singapore. PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHRISTINE WEE

Ms Yasmin Suhaimi was all set to head to Bangkok to start her first internship in May with a venture capital firm. But in March, the second-year business student from Singapore Management University (SMU) learnt that the offer had been withdrawn because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

She is one of many students in Singapore who scrambled for internships when firms' hiring came to a halt, as work for interns has been put on the back burner.

Ms Yasmin, 21, eventually landed a remote internship with Get All, a microservice provider that supports small businesses overseas.

She secured the spot through SMU's Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship's Global Innovation Immersion, which matches aspiring student-entrepreneurs with firms worldwide.

"I was very excited to go overseas, so it was a bit disappointing. But I'm also very relieved to secure another internship," she said.

Data from job portals this year has shown a drop in internships. For instance, JobsCentral and BrightMinds had 222 internship and part-time positions listed from January to May, down from 348 last year during the same period.

Mr Vinay Dua, managing director of the job portals' parent company, CareerBuilder Singapore, noted a "significant dip" in internships related to wealth management and financial planning, sales and consulting. "This is unsurprising, given the reduction in demand for those services amid the pandemic," he told The Sunday Times.

A wider availability of talent to take on short-term projects and part-time jobs affects internship opportunities, he pointed out, as internships are usually created by firms for such ad hoc work, without them having to hire full-timers.

Mr David Leong, managing director of human resources firm PeopleWorldwide Consulting, said: "In 'peacetime recruitment', interns can be enlisted to help organisations and employers, and be immersed in the actual work context for immersive learning and experience.

"But such an experience is hard with the work-from-home arrangements now. There is a lot of work rebalancing and reallocation of resources for employers, and enrolling interns is the last thing on their agenda."

But there is value in hiring interns even during this period, said Mr Leong, as they can be an asset for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in their digitalisation efforts, which have been accelerated by the Covid-19 situation.

The universities are monitoring the impact of the pandemic on work opportunities.

Ms Joan Tay, director of the Centre for Future-ready Graduates at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said it anticipates that sectors like retail and hospitality, transport and aerospace, as well as SMEs will be most affected. But internships are still available in sectors such as information and communications technology and healthcare.

NUS placed over 7,000 students on internships in its current academic year which started last August, similar to the figures in previous years. It has made arrangements for all affected students, including those whose stints were withdrawn, so that none of them will face a delay in graduation, Ms Tay said.

This includes working with employers to modify the scope and duration of work so that students may telecommute, and helping students source alternative options.

NUS is also seeking remote internships with overseas partners, and several in countries such as Chile, China and Switzerland have started to offer such positions.

A spokesman for Nanyang Technological University (NTU) said it is also exploring remote internships with companies based overseas. It recently inked a partnership that has opened up nearly 200 such positions with about 100 companies in Chongqing, China. More than 200 students have applied for these stints, which will begin in the new academic year.

To support students, NTU also offers a programme akin to an internship, which allows them to work on real-life team projects and address the business needs of companies. They are mentored by staff from companies as well as faculty members.

"The supervision load on the company personnel is lower compared with an internship, which makes it more attractive for companies to take part in," said the spokesman.

The number of NTU students on internships has remained stable this academic year, compared with the year before, he said.

Mr Sim Cher Young, director of SMU's Dato' Kho Hui Meng Career Centre, said it has seen fewer internship postings from companies this summer break. SMU has also reached out to students whose internships have been cancelled, postponed or shortened, to help them find alternative hosts.

"To support this group, we have also welcomed companies with shorter projects and research activities to come on board our internship programmes," said Mr Sim.

Ms Huo Yasi, senior assistant director of SMU's Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said its plans for at least 60 students to go overseas for summer internships were suspended owing to Covid-19. Some firms were able to proceed with the stints on a remote basis, while others could not.

"Students have been resourceful enough to find their own internships, and we've also sourced positions from start-ups within the SMU community," said Ms Huo.

Mr Leon Qiu, chief executive of Get All, said he had hoped at least eight interns this year could work in Shenzhen and Yangon, where its overseas offices are based.

But the outbreak has caused him to scale down his plans. He now has four interns who are working from home in Singapore.

He said that although a remote internship would not be "as impactful" as an immersive one that would have included trips to villages in Myanmar where the firm provides micro-loans, he "didn't think it was fair to cancel on the interns".

Second-year SMU business student Hoo Xuan Ting, 21, had plans to be in the heart of San Francisco's business district on an internship with Going Merry, an education management technology company.

Since May, she has been working for the firm, but mostly from her bedroom in Singapore.

"I was concerned about whether I could learn from the company and how much I could take away from working remotely, but it's been a good experience," she said.

"I try to be proactive and solve problems on my own, while being efficient with the use of my time."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 05, 2020, with the headline Undergrads scramble for internships amid hiring freeze. Subscribe