Economy & Business
Cultivating talent through internships
A new generation of Taiwan university interns gains international experience and skills
By Douglas Habecker
Third-year university student Antony Tsao was looking for his first internship when he bumped into Adam Bell, global director of business enhancement and services at Global Water Solutions (GWS). Antony was among a group of student volunteers at the annual KIDZ Charity Gala organised by the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce, which Bell was a board member of. The two struck up a conversation and the Tunghai University International Business Administration (IBA) major came on board as an intern in March 2021.
Currently, Tsao is busy doing market development and research for GWS, finding new Taiwanese markets for its water supply and treatment components and systems, creating lists of potential customers, and contacting dealers, sellers and product distributors. Although he was initially nervous about cold calling these contacts, he now does so with confidence after reaching out to 20-30 businesses. He says he has also gotten a chance to work with foreigners in an international environment, experience and appreciate a hands-off western style of management, improve his English communication skills, and learn more about this specific industry. While he sees his future in the business/marketing side of the sports industry, he says his time at GWS has been valuable.
“So far, I think this has been a good experience working in this field and in terms of my own personal experience. Usually at school, we only learn through classes and books without the physical real-life experience of working in a company, so that we don’t know what we can really do after graduating,” says Tsao, who will be at GWS until June and is already looking for more internship opportunities.
Fellow Tunghai IBA fourth-year student Olive Chang is currently in the middle of her fourth internship, in charge of marketing for international concert and artist management agency Newbility. This includes designing promotional posters, writing press releases and doing media marketing plans, as well as making direct contact with foreign composers, musicians and large companies. Previously, she also had a two-month marketing internship at a Shenzhen, China based manufacturer, was a member of Taichung AmCham’s 2020 KIDZ Charity Gala organising committee and in charge of creating all promotional imagery/designs for that event, and worked on a joint project between Taichung MRT Co. and Compass Magazine, soliciting businesses for a MRT map/station guide. She says all of these experiences have expanded her horizons in many ways, including boosting her design skills--which may now lead to graduate studies in this field--and seeing her designs used in public, exposure to working in China, learning to collaborate with teams, and cold-calling often-skeptical businesses about cooperation. “I think it’s been a great chance to understand what it’s like to work in an industry you’re interested in and build up your skills,” she says.
Olive Chang (centre), together with Iris Sun (right), and fellow Tunghai IC classmate Tegan Cho (left) at AmCham Taichung's KIDZ Charity Gala
Photo courtesy of Iris Sun
Tunghai IBA classmate Iris Sun, working alongside Chang at Newbility, agrees on the value of an internship: “I think it’s more common for Taiwanese students to get internships now. In the past, students went and got a master’s degree after college but now students, especially business majors, want work experience first before doing this.” Her current experience with concert products, communicating with foreign artists about contracts, handling budgets, payments and international taxes, making media plans, doing social media promotions and creating an international website all dovetails with her interest in this field and goal of pursuing a master’s degree in art/fashion management and marketing, and has boosted her confidence, efficiency, communication and other skills.
In recent years, there has been much discussion in Taiwan’s academic, industry and government circles about a perceived lack of skills, experience and professional poise among local university graduates, with a particular focus on shortcomings in English communication and other qualifications needed for competitiveness in a global business environment. As this public discussion continues, individual students and university programmes are serving as positive role models for peers when it comes to effectively addressing these issues.
This includes Tunghai University’s International College (IC) founded in 2013 and including IBA and Sustainability Science and Engineering (SSE) programmes. According to Tunghai IC Dean and IBA Director Dr. James Sims, the all-English college was launched to boost the university’s internationalisation and offers students dual-degree foreign-study opportunities with multiple schools in the United States, Australian, the UK and France, plus international exchange programmes with over 200 partner schools around the world. A third of Tunghai IC students are international, from over 30 countries, and a high percentage of his faculty are foreigners, making it a “real international college”, according to the dean. Sims notes that the majority of his students have a strong interest in English and overseas study, in addition to international business and sustainability.
He says that such a programme not only attracts a certain kind of student but also caters to a new generation that has different expectations and demands: “I would say our students are more outgoing and expect to have more interaction; the majority are not what I’d call ‘book-oriented’ students. University students today are mostly different from 20 years ago and need to be motivated by the content area. They like to do more presentations, interact with classmates and have competition between groups. They are more creative, demand to be engaged and expect things to be more meaningful.”
For example, Sims divides his IBA students into small teams and assigns each to cover an internationally oriented company. The teams conduct in-person visits and English interviews with foreign managers from these businesses and generate an English SWOT analysis, which is presented to classmates and those same managers when they visit to speak at the IC. Such interactions have had an impact on the students and their subjects; Sims noted that a Nike manager was so impressed with the SWOT analysis that he asked if he could get a copy for his own use. An even more common result has been a variety of paid/unpaid student internship opportunities, which are always encouraged. Sims says that although quality internships can be difficult to source, about 75% of his students find them.
“These allow students to learn something and teaches them responsibility—showing up on time, doing what they’re told and going home when instructed to. In the interview process, they have to be responsible for themselves. They also build connections and their resume. I think the biggest thing they learn is that the workplace is vastly different from school. You have to earn your keep, you have to be professional, have to learn teamwork and sometimes have to learn to work with people you don’t get along with. You’re also the bottom of the totem pole and learn you don’t start out as a manager,” he says, adding that the professional and English skills Tunghai IC works to make its interns attractive to companies, including some that end up hiring students part-time or offering them full employment.
Such was the case with Tunghai IBA 2020 graduate Yaya Chen, who today works for People First Relocation (PFR).
Yaya Chen (right) together with colleagues and clients at People First Relocation
PFR Managing Director Jim Hill was among the guest speakers at her college and, although she had never previously heard of the relocation industry, asked him about an internship. She said that six-month experience ended up exceeding her expectations, as she started with administrative work that developed the knowledge and experience to assist foreign customers moving to Taiwan, including researching property rental reports and markets in several major Taiwan cities. This culminated with the chance to complete a relocation case by herself, including helping an American client negotiate and sign a home lease contract. When her time at PFR ended, Hill raised the possibility of coming back to work fulltime and, after an “awful” post-graduation experience working at a traditional local company, she did just that. She adds that Tunghai IC’s focus on developing students’ English presentation and communication skills, plus her interactions with foreign students from different cultures, prepared her for face-to-face handling of and relationship-building with international customers, many who have become friends: “I think this is very important—globalisation means learning to work with other countries and cultures.”
Hill says he has welcomed at least six Tunghai IC interns over the past three years at his Taipei office, where they’re more focused on document translation and processes visas and government paperwork, and Taichung, where they help prepare home-finding services listings and have more direct contact with foreign clients. The students have seamlessly connected with his team and he says their biggest challenge has been their initial nervousness at being given freedom to complete tasks independently, as it’s “probably the first time since they were born that no one’s telling them what to do”.
Tunghai IC student Jocelyn Lin did her first internship at PFR’s Taipei office and notes her goal was to work with an international business and foreign manager and polish her English skills, rather than a specific industry or job. She says she wasn’t disappointed, as she learned how to take over tasks and process and complete them in the proper way, all in English, adding that Hill advised her to be less rushed and more detail-focused when doing a job. It was through Hill’s recommendation that she got a second internship at the British Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, where she worked with many business-related events, telemarketing, and the Better Business Awards. Now she’s seeking a third internship related to e-commerce.
Jocelyn Lin (2nd right) together with Steven Parker (left), CEO of the British Chamber of Commerce Taipei
Hill adds that if positions are open he welcomes future chances to hire more former interns, while other company managers specifically see internships as a form of cultivating and recruiting employees. “We like working with interns because it’s a good way to develop new potential staff,” says Bell at Global Water Solutions, which has had four Tunghai IC interns and two from Providence University to date. “I’ve been impressed with their motivation. They’ve shown determination when it comes to market mapping. They’ve done an excellent job of sticking with it and putting together information. They’ve also done well with cold calls, which isn’t easy. I’ve actually had regular employees who have left because they weren’t willing to do this.”
At renewable energy consultant/trader/project developer Mt. Stonegate Asset Management, Managing Director Jules Chuang points out that he has given fulltime positions to two-thirds of the roughly 10 interns that have worked for him, noting that internships are part of his employee recruitment plan. “We see them as a junior member of the staff from day one,” he says. After receiving job training, reading assignments and gaining knowledge, interns are actively involved with projects and consulting, preparing documents and contracts, joining internal/external meetings and client conference calls, and even occasionally travelling abroad. Chuang says that, as his company must communicate with corporate headquarters in the US and Europe, English communication skills are a must for interns, adding he believes students educated in an English environment—in Taiwan or abroad—tend to be a bit more open-minded, willing to take on challenges, professional and mature than the average local student.
One of Chuang’s interns was Tunghai IBA fourth-year student Shaina Chen, whose stint at the company during her sophomore and junior years left her with an impressive in-depth professional knowledge and experience in that industry, as she quickly ticks off her tasks, including analysis of regional electrical market structures, renewable energy trading activities, and evaluating foreign service opportunities for renewable energy certificates and consulting. The highlight was joining a business trip to Singapore to attend a global energy forum, where she participated in meetings with clients and potential investors, a “very special experience impossible for most 20-year-old students to have”. Although she is moving in the direction of public relations and already works full-time at a US-based PR agency in Taipei, she praises Chuang’s efforts to guide and mentor her and says her renewable energy knowledge has remained valuable as her current employer is looking to develop clients in this industry.
“My key takeaway [from the internship] was to switch the way I think from the academic to the practical. In my experience, there is a huge gap between school and work. I majored in business administration and learned everything but never went very deep in anything and my professional skills were weak. All that matters is experience and this pushed me to realize what the workplace is like and how competitive it is. It changed my mindset,” says Chen.
Fellow IBA senior and Mt. Stonegate intern Karen Su similarly impresses with her deep professional knowledge of renewable energy. She analyzed foreign power markets, wrote and presented reports on these and shared her own perspectives. She says it was interesting, challenging and “actually quite fun” to learn about the industry, and is now experienced at researching and analyzing corporate social responsibility (CSR), Environmental and Social and Governance (ESG) indexes for large corporations, as well as International Renewable Energy and Energy Attribute certificates. Being an intern also enhanced her presentation, critical thinking, problem-solving and time-management skills. At the encouragement of Sims, she decided to tackle her current internship, leading a group of about 10 fellow Tunghai IC students to research, analyze and compile a White Paper report for Taichung AmCham, which has taught her further teamwork and leadership skills.
Yet another IBA senior who gained exposure to and experience in Taiwan’s booming renewable energy sector was Ethan Ho. He met wind power company Enercon Taiwan Managing Director Bart Linssen when his team did a SWOT analysis of the business. Seeking opportunities last summer, he wrote to Linssen, who agreed to the internship although he had never hosted an intern before.
Ho became the managing director’s assistant and, in addition to following him around on a daily basis, helping organize and take notes for meetings, designing technician evaluation sheets and other tasks, was given an important assignment—evaluating and presenting potential wind-power sites at all of Taiwan’s industrial parks, including analyses of wind speeds, space and potential environmental issues—that Linssen could use in the development planning process. Linssen, who credits Ho’s persistence in convincing him to take on an intern and proactive attitude on the job, says he would now “absolutely” consider future internships.
Shaina Chen encourages her younger university peers to begin thinking about and planning for what they will do after university as early as their freshman year, as she did, adding that this mindset isn’t promoted in this culture. “Parents tell us what to do, from kindergarten through senior high school, so we really never have the chance to think about what we want or are looking for. At university, we’re not used to thinking for ourselves,” she says, noting that a fear of creating resumes and applying for internships is leaving some of her classmates with little practical experience upon graduation. “My internships definitely helped me get into my current job and easily adopt to the workplace. The way I think and work isn’t like a student anymore.”
Douglas Habecker is a writer, Compass Magazine co-publisher and current Taichung AmCham chairman