Twenty-three-year-old Baptist University graduate Trista Hon has reason to be excited. She is about to start working at BDO, an international accounting company, after beating many others for the position.
Hon attributes her success to her two-month working experience in Shanghai in the summer of last year. Hon took part in the government's Mainland Experience Scheme, a five-year pilot scheme launched in 2011 to sponsor short-term internships, or learning programmes, in the mainland for about 30,000 students.
"Auditing jobs require frequent travel to the mainland. It helps a lot that I have some understanding of working across the border. I can also adjust to working in the mainland better than other students," says Hon, who will be based in Hong Kong for the near future.
To prepare Hon for her stay in the mainland last year, Baptist University's career centre evaluated her fluency in Putonghua, along with her ability to cope with emergencies when working outside the territory.
In the current competitive economic environment, internships can give potential graduates a head start. Every day, recruiters are flooded with applications from university students who possess stunning academic credentials.
"We come across graduates with impressive academic and extra-curricular credentials all the time," says Sue Kim, founder of LIBBLER, an online platform established two years ago that is dedicated to the development of new graduates, and job matching.
"It's very easy to find a graduate who speaks four languages, has completed more than three internships or won academic scholarships, on our talent database," says Kim. "Competition has indeed become fierce."
In response to this challenging employment landscape, career centres at universities are constantly on the lookout for internship opportunities locally, globally and in the mainland.
Since 2005, Polytechnic University has required students to complete at least one internship before graduation. Every year, an average of 3,000 students from PolyU are engaged in an internship.
This summer, Chinese University placed 570 students in internships in 24 countries, under its global internship programme.
"Employers prefer job applicants with internship experience because they are more mature and more familiar with the corporate world," says Melina Lai, director of the Office of Careers and Placement Services at PolyU. "They tend to have a stronger work ethic and are more adaptable."
"If a new graduate has never done an internship, employers may wonder if the graduate lacks the initiative to look for one," she explains.
The chance of a student being hired is boosted if he or she has international working experience, according to Dr Tim Wong, head of Baptist University's career centre. "Medium to large-sized companies are selective in the recruitment process, and an international internship would improve the chance for a job candidate," he says.
Echoing Wong, Lai says students with international experience had demonstrated better communications skills and flexibility, and were more independent.
Work experience prior to leaving school is especially beneficial for students without a professional degree. For example, an English major with an emphasis on languages and literature has plenty of options other than teaching, including administration, journalism, legal services, sales and marketing, and public relations.
"Employers are looking for people who have been exposed to more than one particular field," Wong says.
Career advisers at the institutes are charged with the task of equipping students with the skills for a smooth transition into corporate life. Training courses and workshops on job hunting skills, interview etiquette, and resume writing, are organised on campus.
Before they start their internship, students are briefed on issues such as foreign culture, if they are heading to the mainland or overseas, and the jargon of particular industries.
The role interns are expected to play has changed over the years. In the past, the youngsters were seen as helping hands to provide support for the regular staff in an office. But now the new entrants are increasingly being integrated into overall manpower planning.
An internship can pave the way for a permanent position in large companies. Banks, in particular, may issue conditional offers to student workers who perform well, before they get their degrees.
Many employers view an internship as an arrangement that is meant to benefit the company as well as the student. "[It is] for the mutual benefit of the students and the employers themselves," says Lai. "We have come across small and medium sized enterprises which offer internships to develop students' interest in their fields.
"Eventually, the employers hope to secure their long-term commitment to the company. This in turn, helps to plug the shortfall from the turnover of regular staff," she says.
While a university degree, stellar academic results and other criteria are often advantageous, employers also take soft skills into consideration to identify the right candidates.
Sectors like banking, asset management, consumer products, retail and technology want to be sure that the young workers have a can-do attitude and are reliable, Kim says. "To impress experienced recruiters, graduates need to be able to show genuine passion and interest for the role. They can do this by having a good understanding of themselves and their interests," she says.
"They are also looking for people who can formulate their own views. Critical thinking and problem-solving skills are useful, as is the ability to construct a sound opinion." Baptist University encourages students to become involved in community projects. They try to get them to help with the co-ordination, rather than just join in. "Students nowadays tend to be less independent. They need to become proactive in finding resources," Wong says.
The recent death of an intern at Bank of America in London, which is believed have been caused by excessive work, raised questions about the exploitation of young graduates.
"We always monitor the situation of our students closely by keeping in touch with them throughout the internship," Wong says.
Staff from the career centre join students abroad to help them settle in, he says, adding that social media is used to share information among students and keep track of their situation.