Skills gap between internship, curriculum

Interns note steep learning curve as job attachment delves into programming which aren't taught in school, but say internships offer valuable learning experience.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Internship offers real-world skills and experience, but it also exposes the gap between what students learn in classrooms and the skills they will actually need when they enter the workforce.


"We had to catch up
and strive to be on par
with the full-time programmers.
The learning curve was big."
- Jackson Lim

Jackson Lim, for example, found his three-month internship with a Singapore-based multimedia design house valuable because it exposed him to tools that were not taught during his tertiary years at Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP). He graduated in 2010 with a Diploma in Digital Media Design.

Lim, 23, said: "At NYP, we learnt mostly the basics, so during the internship at the design house, we had to catch up and strive to be on par with the full-time programmers. The learning curve was big.

"So I just kept asking my seniors for guidance whenever I wasn't sure about something, and they were very helpful. I also did overtime without extra pay because I was hungry to learn more," said Lim, who learnt a new 3D programming tool, called Xara 3D Maker, during his internship. He also picked up other programming and design rules, for instance, designing site navigation that offered better user experience.

He helped with Web and graphic design for one of the company's clients--a major financial services provider--creating new design for the Web site and electronic direct mailers when the client launched new products. He also delved into Flash animation and HTML programming.

Lim said his experience with the client was good exposure and a valuable addition to his portfolio. The 23-year-old is currently serving his national service which will end in three months, after which he will continue his studies at Singapore Institute of Technology-Glasgow School of Art.

Han Lihua also highlighted the lack of coding knowledge as a challenge during her 10-week internship in 2010 with a global electronics manufacturer. A university graduate, Han said she found the program useful in terms of the technical skills she picked up and the exposure to work life.

Sometimes, what students pick up during their job attachment can also prove useful when they return to school.

Azmirah, 23, last year completed a six-month internship with a major multinational IT vendor. She just graduated with a Diploma in Network Systems and Security from a Singapore-based polytechnic and is currently looking for a job.

During her internship, Azmirah helped test and identify bugs in a software system the IT vendor was building for a healthcare services provider. She picked up programming skills, including SQL, and some of these were later taught in school.

"The SQL programming I learnt was related to database management, so it was easier for me to understand when SQL was taught during one of my modules," she said. "It's also used in my computer forensic and advanced network security modules, so the internship was useful."

Han suggested companies assigned mentors to help guide interns.

Go big, or go small?
Asked if there was anything he would have liked to change about his internship, Lim replied: "Extending the internships would have helped, for example, to six months which would have allowed me to learn more. I would want to go to bigger companies, too, because if I want to learn, I should learn from the best. And with big companies, I may be able to land permanent job placements."

Woon Tai Hai, chairman of Malaysia's ICT association Pikom, acknowledged the natural preference to intern with an MNC (multinational corporation) rather than a small and midsize business (SMB). However, he noted that there are limited MNCs and a higher number of SMBs in the market. In addition, the latter group employs 70 percent of the workforce today, so there is a high likelihood that students will end up working for an SMB in the long run, he said.

"The advantage of working in an SMB environment is that the interns may be given greater responsibilities and a larger role. The chances of being hired later also is greater," Woon noted. "The key consideration is still the kind of internship the individual is looking for and the relevancy to his studies."

He said Pikom works with its members and universities to help match interns with relevant market players.

Woon agreed, though, that short internships lasting just one to two months were impractical and distractive also to the companies. He said these work stints should preferably stretch at least six months as this would allow skills learnt to be applied and tested.

At Symantec, internships span 12 to 16 weeks. Tan Yuh Woei, the IT security vendor's Singapore country director, said the company offers internship programs in the Asia-Pacific region but declined to reveal the number it hires.

Tan said Symantec recruits interns from local polytechnics and three local universities in Singapore, where students are shortlisted based on various criteria such as their course and year of studies as well as academic achievements, and invited to interview for the role.

Interns at the company earn from S$500 per month if they are from a polytechnic, and up to S$1,200 per month if they are undergraduates.

From interns to employees
Tan added that Symantec has recruited interns later as full-time employees, but declined to disclose the conversion rate.

"There are several benefits from implementing an internship program. First, it creates an opportunity for our managers to evaluate the competency of new graduates and further develop leadership skills. Second, interns also form an alternative pool of candidates to assist on short-term assignments."

He added that interns who had successful programs with the company also became "ambassadors for Symantec", and helped position it as "an employer of choice".

"While it is great these young enthusiasts are exposed to operating coffee machine and photocopying machine, such repetitive activities can be boring and unproductive."
-- Woon Tai Hai

Woon said: "The biggest benefits that can be realized by the student are the exposure in a real- life environment, solving real-life problems and interacting with people--internally and externally." He added that it instills discipline as the student may sometimes need to be on time for work and may have to work past normal office hours.

A good work attitude could help land the intern a permanent position with the company when a vacancy opens up, he said.

Like Lim, Azmirah suggested IT training schools provide skills that went beyond the basics so students would be better prepared when they interned. "My course was in network system security so we learnt more about Internet security. We didn't really go further into programming," she said. "So, I had to learn it on my own to cope with the internship. My seniors [at the IT vendor] were patient and tried to make it easier for us [interns] to cope."

Coffee-making skills "unproductive"
According to Woon, internship programs should be broad base and cover as much as possible, and should be relevant to the student's study course.

"Many internship programs do not generate the right outcome because the objective of a broad-base program is not set, expectations of the interns and the company are mismatched, and more often, the internship programs are not planned and structured at the outset. Instead a 'on-the-job' training approach is used.

"We have even heard of horror story of interns being used to run errands and as a delivery person, including making coffee and photocopying machine. While it is great these young enthusiasts are exposed to operating coffee machine and photocopying machine, such repetitive activities can be boring and unproductive," he said.

Tan noted that one key challenge Symantec faced in managing its interns is resource-related, as some interns have to apply for time off from work to fulfill other academic requirements. And this can sometimes be in the midst of ongoing projects they are involved in at Symantec, he said.

"Nevertheless, interns have proven to be a valuable resource and with the guidance of their hiring managers, they have been instrumental in driving positive outcomes for Symantec," he added.

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