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Are International Internships on the Rise?

Are international internships on the rise?

As the world shrinks and the job market grows in competitiveness, gaining international experience and global skills becomes increasingly important.

Studying abroad remains the most popular option for students going overseas, with nearly 290,000 students studying abroad in the 2013-14 year. However, as the number of students who study abroad increases, more and more students are beginning to realize that studying abroad isn't enough. They need to do something more to set themselves apart.

Despite the incredible rise in competition, the grandfathers of the international internship world have still seen an increase in the number of participants.

International internships have quickly stepped in to fill that void. Over the past century, interning abroad has grown from a small exchange-based enterprise to a booming industry.

A Brief History of International Internships

The formal origins of interning abroad began following World War II, with the aim to rebuild industry while fostering peace and understanding among the nations of Europe. Previously, there existed some work-exchange programs between individual countries, but in 1948, two multinational organizations formed with the focus of training through exchange: the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (IAESTE) and Association internationale des étudiants en sciences économiques et commerciales (International Association of Students in Economic and Commercial Sciences, or AIESEC).

IAESTE was founded at Imperial College, London, with 10 European member nations. AIESEC began with seven European nations, exchanging 89 students in its first year. In 2014, IAESTE had expanded to more than 80 member countries, while AIESEC connected more than 120 nations. Together, the two organizations now enable several thousand students to gain professional experience abroad.

London

A number of other longstanding internship and work exchange agreements formed between countries in the early years of the international internship industry, many of which still exist and are easily recognized today.

In the 1920s, the first transatlantic work-study programs were initiated between the United States and Germany. The alumni of those initiatives went on to create more formal international internship programs (under what later became CDS International -- now Cultural Vistas).

In the 1960s BUNAC became one of the United Kingdom's first international work exchange organizations, creating internship opportunities for students between the United Kingdom and the United States, later expanding to include Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries.

Of course, today there are far more than a handful of options for a student seeking an international internship. Indeed, a search on Go Overseas alone will turn up almost 1,000 different programs offering opportunities to intern abroad.

As demand grows, more and more organizations that traditionally offer study abroad programs are expanding to include internship options, whether as an add-on to a study abroad program or as a stand-alone program.

How Much are International Internships Growing?

Despite the incredible rise in competition, the grandfathers of the international internship world have still seen an increase in the number of participants. A far cry from that initial group of 89 trainees, more than 5,300 students and recent graduates from around the world participated in international internships through AIESEC's Global Talent program in 2014. And today IAESTE exchanges more than four times the number of trainees as it did in 1948.

While traditionally international interns have been drawn between countries in the Western world, with a large rate of exchange between North America and Europe, the times they are a-changin'.

Nearly 30,000 international interns from around the world came into the United States on the J-1 Intern & Trainee visas in 2012. Cultural Vistas, one of more than 80 J-1 visa sponsor organizations in the U.S., reports having seen a 15% increase in international interns in the U.S. between the years of 2011 and 2014.

As further evidence of the growing popularity and importance of international internships, the Institute of International Education (IIE) started tracking the amount of American students taking advantage of these kinds of opportunities in 1999-2000. In 2000, the numbers came in at 1,700 students taking part in for-credit work, internship and volunteer abroad (WIVA) programs. In 2012-13, that number had skyrocketed to nearly 20,500 students.

International interns

It should be noted that these numbers can be extremely difficult to compile. IIE relies on universities to report on these numbers -- in the last year still only 50% of universities reported their numbers -- which means that it doesn't account for students who don't go through a formal program or who intern abroad without informing their university, not to mention non-students who take part in internships overseas.

These numbers also neglect to account for non-credit internships, which IIE began tracking in the past two years under the category of "Non-credit work, internships & volunteering" (WIVA). In 2011-12 there were 12,758 students reported to be taking part in non-credit WIVA opportunities. A year later, that number increased to a reported 15,089 students.

Altogether, the 2012-13 school year saw more than 35,000 students taking part in intern abroad or similar programs. Again, this number represents only about half of universities reporting, so we can expect that this number is actually much, much larger. In a 2009 International Educator article, University of Michigan's overseas opportunities office director estimated that number was actually probably about 50,000 students a year, with only about 20% receiving credit. If we were to use that math with the 2012-13 numbers, that would give us an estimate of 102,500 students interning abroad!

A look at individual university numbers shows a different perspective on the growth of international internships. In 2003, Yale University offered one international internship program and placed 30 students. In 2008, that number had risen to 17 programs and 250 students.

The same growth is seen at universities across the globe. In the United Kingdom, the University of Exeter saw a phenomenal increase in overseas internships among its students, from less than a quarter of the student population in 2011 to 64% in 2014.

What Fields Are Growing in Internships Abroad?

From the start, an emphasis has been put on certain fields in the realm of international training. AEISEC formed with a focus on business internships, though it has expanded to include management, technical, and education fields. IAESTE specializes in technical fields, particularly science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

As governments and organizations realize the value in building relationships with strategic partners, they are bolstering the support and promotion of international experiential education.

Business has long been a popular field for interning abroad. It's not hard to argue the benefits of having global competence and perspective when going into a field that typically requires the knowledge of international business practices. Furthermore, business schools have often led the way in creating and promoting international internship opportunities and programs.

In study abroad overall, the top three fields represented were STEM, social sciences, and business in 2013. Students in STEM fields are traditionally underrepresented in study abroad -- likely because it is often hard to find study abroad programs that offer equivalent classes that would be accepted for credit in many of these majors' strict curricula -- but saw a 9% increase from the past year.

Interning abroad in science

This pattern seems to be reflected in internships abroad as well, perhaps because student see gaining practical experience in these hands-on fields as a more pragmatic option.

According to Robin Lerner, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Exchange at the U.S. Department of State, there has been a recent surge in incoming international interns in the STEM fields, in addition to fields that are historically popular with the J-1 intern and trainee visas, including hospitality, tourism, forestry and agriculture.

Andrew Budsock, a fellow studying and interning abroad in Germany on the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX), makes a strong argument for why international experience is such an increasingly important part of STEM learning (dubbing the new acronym, iSTEM).

"Becoming globally engaged as a scientist is essential," Budsock said. "Scientists interested in environmental issues, geopolitical conflicts, and global climate change must metaphorically (of course) shred their passports and think of themselves of global citizens. This type of thinking facilitates international collaboration and consequently, robust research projects."

Where Are International Interns Going?

While traditionally international interns have been drawn between countries in the Western world, with a large rate of exchange between North America and Europe, the times they are a-changin'. Today, the most popular countries for internships abroad span the globe, as many students realize the value of gaining experience and building language skills in burgeoning economies in Asia and Latin America.

The New York Times covered the increase in foreign interns heading to China, citing the rise of third-party internship organizers who see incredible growth in demand each year. According to the article, CRCC Asia began with a pilot program of 20 interns in 2007. In 2013 that number was 100 times larger at about 2,000 interns.

According to IIE -- who just began gathering destination data for non-credit WIVA programs in the 2012-13 year -- the most popular region for American students to work, intern or volunteer abroad (non-credit) was Latin America and the Caribbean (about half going to Mexico), followed by Europe (with United Kingdom and Italy leading the pack), and then Asia (with China accounting for half of those students).

Latin America

However, when we look at the actual numbers, we can see this data is somewhat unreliable. According to the report, only 1,396 students went to Asia, with 628 of those going to China. Compared to the number of interns just one third-party provider placed in China in that same year, it is clear how incredibly underreported these numbers are and how much further we have to go in improving the gathering of these statistics.

As governments and organizations realize the value in building relationships with strategic partners -- and how imperative it is for the next generation of global leaders to have the intercultural knowledge and skills to interact with each other -- they are bolstering the support and promotion of international experiential education.

Why Are International Internships On The Rise?

As a recent New York Times article pointed out, international internships can end up being costly endeavors. However, as awareness of the importance and impact of these opportunities grows, so does external funding. Increased government funding, scholarships and fellowships make these opportunities more accessible and attractive to students.

Ultimately, increased funding, programs, and opportunities certainly play a large role in the reason why international internships are on the rise.

Universities are also recognizing the importance of encouraging students to build their skills through global internships. The University of Pennsylvania has built international internships into their strategic initiative, boosting the stipends and scholarships they offer for those opportunities.

Furthermore, as governments and organizations realize the value in building relationships with strategic partners -- and how imperative it is for the next generation of global leaders to have the intercultural knowledge and skills to interact with each other -- they are bolstering the support (financially and otherwise) and promotion of international experiential education.

For example, the United States government's "100,000 Strong China" and "100,000 Strong in the Americas" were created to encourage student exchange between the United States and China and Latin America, including through international internships. In Australia, the government has committed millions of dollars to provide scholarships for Australian students to study, work, and intern abroad in Asia.

China

The economy and job market can also play a role. Despite the costs that may be associated with interning abroad, students realize that these kinds of global experiences set them apart in times when the job market is especially competitive, or even that such experiences could better prepare them to work abroad in a stronger economy. That same New York Times article pointed out the results of a survey by IES Abroad, which states that some 89% of their alumni reported getting a job within six months of graduation.

Ultimately, increased funding, programs, and opportunities certainly play a large role in the reason why international internships are on the rise. Greater employability in a competitive job market is surely a factor as well.

There are also likely a number of immeasurable influences. As more and more students intern abroad, it causes a domino effect, increasing the number of students who are aware of the availability of these opportunities, and who are more likely to take part in an internship abroad after knowing someone else who has done so and had a positive experience.

In fact, the increased competition among third-party international internship program providers may lead to an increase in program quality, leading to more positive reviews on sites like Go Overseas and more students willing to take the leap to intern abroad.

There's also a little je ne sais quoi about students today, a special mix of ingredients in this so-called Millennial generation. It may in fact be the opportunity to do it all -- to travel, to be fully immersed in another culture, to gain skills and develop oneself personally and professionally -- that makes international internships so increasingly appealing.

Photo Credits: Anna Morris, Jessie Beck, Madison Burgess, Gabriella Schiller, Megan Lee, and Death to Stock
Rachael Taft

Growing up in the Midwest, Rachael couldn't wait to get out and see the world. She's studied abroad in Italy and Thailand, interned abroad in Sydney, worked abroad in Australia and Fiji, and traveled to 30+ countries, including backpacking solo across South America. In addition to working in international exchange, Rachael obsesses over all things her blog Girl, Unmapped.