Internships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Most US universities have an internship system offering students practical experience during or immediately following their courses. Most of these programs are well-managed outsourcing of practical training that helps students round out their resume and understand what a full-time job is all about. Although some large companies use internships as a means of vetting future employees, usually the practice isn't financially rewarding for the employer. Rather, it is seen as a way of "giving something back to society," and often interns come from the CEO's alma mater.
Japanese companies are not used to internship programs, as they think very little about corporate philanthropy in general. Therefore, the few international universities in Japan and colleges in the USA with Japan studies programs have had a really tough time placing students as interns. Among the more successful programs are those associated with leading university brand names in the USA - such as MIT's MISTI engineering/Japanese double-major program. MISTI places about 20-30 Japanese-speaking engineering interns a year with companies here. Again, in most cases, these universities are having to work through their alumni networks to get the interns in.
It's not a Japanese attitude problem, though. As a local employer, I find that most internships are too short to benefit either the employer or the intern. Stanford's Japan program, for example, runs a relatively short 3 months, and some others only last 4-6 weeks - about the same period of time required to learn everyone's name and figure out the photocopier. For this reason, I prefer MIT's pragmatic MISTI program. Their internships run for a full year, by which time the individual is making a solid contribution to the company and therefore earning their paycheck. Furthermore, over the period of a year they learn the meaning of teamwork, taking initiative, and responsibility, as well as the general dynamics of how a company works.
As I don't know of many Japanese universities doing internships, my message to younger Japanese students reading this is quite simple: go talk to your dean about getting a program in place. The target cooperating companies could be the 3,500 foreign companies in Japan that have still kept some of their foreign flavor (versus the other 2,000 which behave and act more Japanese than most Japanese companies). Thus, with a little bit of hustle and CEO networking, a program can easily be put together.
Local universities would certainly have an advantage. About 2-3 times a year I get asked by an overseas university to take an intern, but usually I'm reluctant to do so because it's impossible to predict what kind of person you're going to get. The problem is that once they've traveled 10,000 miles to come to your company, it's pretty hard to toss them out onto the streets if they don't work out. Therefore, most companies either suffer in silence or don't take interns at all.
Hiring, "sight unseen" can certainly be a worry, as I once found out when I took a very smart software developer as an intern from a major technology university (that shall remain nameless). This guy was everything we'd hoped for, and the software team was really looking forward to looking after him. However, after just 3 days on the job, he went missing for a week. We frantically called the police, his parents, and his school, trying to find him and make sure he was OK. We had visions of a traffic accident and worse. The following week he called us from Okinawa - it turned out that he'd decided that he'd rather be sun-baking on the beach! "Sorry," he said. Boy was I mad!
So, if I could get interns from Japanese universities, I would at least know that I could call the person's professor and get him/her to take responsibility for an errant or unproductive internﾉ
Anyways, if there are any professors among our readership, please note that as an employer, my internship program requirements are: i) the ability to try out an intern for a week or so before committing to them, ii) a long-term internship period of 9 to 12 months, iii) some prior attitude training for the individuals before they show up, and iv) a small financial subsidy to help cover the salary of my staff for the time spent training the intern.