Top image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Photo
Back in the 1990s, when she was a student, my mother used to shelve CDs and wipe public telephones at a video rental shop for free. My grandfather, a businessman, wanted her to gain “work experience”. There wasn’t really a name for that back then. Nowadays, it’s called an internship, and it’s become ubiquitous.
People once looked down on vocations, but now, the tides have turned. The theoretical, fuddy-duddy “book knowledge” that classrooms confer is increasingly eschewed for the practical, “hands-on” application that internships seemingly have to offer.
While compulsory internships have long been a staple of polytechnic programmes, many universities are now jumping on the internship bandwagon.
In January this year, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) said it was making internships compulsory for all its undergraduate students, while SUTD and SMU students already have mandatory 16-week and 10-week internships, respectively, as part of their degree programmes. Internships are also a graduation requirement for NUS students in some courses, like engineering and computing.
Most proponents of internships agree that the primary benefit of doing an internship is that students get to learn something about the industry they’re working in, in exchange for their labour. In other words, the primary benefit of an internship is educational and not monetary.
Internship or labour exploitation?
Even in junior colleges and secondary schools where internships are far from mandatory, students are taking up internships in the name of gaining “work experience”.
It is believed that an internship in a law firm, hospital, clinic or tech start-up can help students demonstrate “passion” and gain an edge in university applications for competitive majors. With the introduction of Aptitude Based University Admissions, students who would not usually have made the cut due to their grades can now gain admission to courses based on having “relevant experience” in the desired field of study. So by stating one’s internship stint, an individual can gain access and unlock more opportunities, both in and out of school.
Samantha*, a 19-year-old JC graduate, had the same idea when she applied for a paid internship at a local tech start-up this year while waiting for her A-Level results. However, despite the classification of the role as a “client success internship”, it later became clear that her primary responsibility was handling online help requests and responding to clients by sending them links to how-to articles whenever they ran into trouble with using the company’s software.
“It was quite repetitive,” she shared. “At first, I learned a bit about interacting with customers, but then it just plateaued. Then again, I wasn’t expecting to learn much from my internship there as client success was not related to what I wanted to study. But any internship is better than no internship. I guess [employers] don’t care what you did in an internship, as long as you did an internship on paper.”
Bryan*, another student intern I spoke to, had a similarly lacklustre experience. While waiting to enlist for National Service, Bryan did a paid internship at a law firm. As an intern, Bryan’s main responsibility was to generate invoices for legal services the firm had rendered to its external clients. A few other interns were performing the same role in Bryan’s department, and each of the interns could process anywhere between 90 to 150 bills every day.
Creating these bills took longer than one would expect. The company instructed interns to tailor the bills to suit each client’s preferences, and there was no way to tell what a client’s preferred bill format was without first searching up past references. Interns also had to check, edit, and re-check each bill multiple times before sending it out.
Like Samantha, Bryan also felt that he did not learn much about the law or legal practice through his internship.
“Educationally speaking, an internship is supposed to teach you a skill you would use in your career later on. For instance, if I did an engineering internship, I would hope to pick up some engineering skills or speak to engineers along the way. Although menial tasks are unavoidable, it felt like the whole internship was meant to meet manpower needs rather than to educate youths who would later possibly work for the firm.”
Bryan feels that it was clear that his internship was meant more as a source of labour than an educational opportunity. For what was essentially a full-time office job, Bryan was paid a “mid-three-figure” sum (S$500-S$600) a month.
“I think that in most cases, internships are not well-paid because the justification is that you are not significantly value-adding to the company and that they are training you. So technically, you are receiving non-monetary career benefits,” Bryan shared.
“I agree with this. But I was playing a role in the operations of the firm. If they did not hire an intern for this task, they would have had to pay a full-timer far more than what they paid me to do it. In that case, it is clear that the internship appears to be a source of labour.”
The use of interns as a cheaper substitute to full-time staff was also something I had personally experienced. Fresh out of junior college, I applied for an internship to write articles and curate content for a website. Since the company advertised the role as an internship, I expected to shadow and receive instructions from a full-timer on what kind of content to create.
Instead, I was the only person in the company with experience in writing and digital content creation. Apart from a quick vet by my supervisor (who oversaw operations for the whole company), there was no editor or senior writer to approach for editorial advice.
Companies like the one I interned for could have benefited from hiring a more qualified and experienced permanent staff writer for the role. However, weighing the cost between a temporary student hire versus a permanent one makes such decisions an obvious choice.
Is there a need for tighter regulation?
The fact that more students are doing internships even when they are not compulsory reflects another worrying trend.
As the job market grows increasingly competitive, having many internships under your belt—especially internships at high-profile companies—can be an excellent way to signal that you are better than the rest. Being a fresh graduate is no longer a good excuse for lacking work experience. You now need work experience to gain work experience.
But if anything, compulsory internships—egged on by a cut-throat culture where experience has become a prerequisite for getting your first job and students compete for limited internships—arguably only benefit companies.
It means that companies can obtain semi-skilled labour at a bargain price by cycling through enthusiastic, bright-eyed undergraduates and polytechnic students.
The twin factors of mandatory internships and a competitive job market result in a situation where the supply of intern labour outstrips demand—the perfect storm for labour exploitation to take place.
There are some safeguards in place to protect the welfare of interns. A 2013 press reply by the Ministry of Manpower said interns are protected under the Employment Act while the intern “performs work and has work arrangements similar to that of a regular employee in the organisation”. This includes a maximum of 8 working hours per day or 44 hours per week, overtime pay for working more than that, and one (unpaid) rest day per week.
However, MOM has also clarified that these rules do not apply to students who intern as part of their school’s programme. Also glaringly missing is the mention of any guideline for what constitutes fair pay for an intern, meaning that employers are free to pay whatever they deem fit.
This means that the onus is on employers to do right by their interns. But if internships are becoming more commonplace among students and more attractive to employers as a source of labour, this needs to change.
Not every student has the luxury of taking on an unpaid internship or even a paid internship that pays an allowance lower than the salary of a part-time fast-food worker. And even if they can afford to take on such a job, it still seems unfair if their internship does not live up to the promise of industry experience.
What do interns really gain from internships?
Fortunately, meaningful internship stories do exist.
“My associate took the time to explain everything to me,” Harold, a first-year undergraduate law student who interned at a law firm, shared.
Another first-year student, Yvonne*, 20, interned at a government statutory board while taking a gap year in 2020. She recalls her experience as an overwhelmingly positive one where she was allowed to sit in high-level meetings and learn about policy-making.
“Honestly, it was amazing. I also felt more useful in this internship because my work would be passed down the chain of command for further editing as well,” she remembered. “It just felt better knowing I had some stake in the formulation of that particular document. The pay was also much more competitive, at S$1.2k a month.”
This was in stark contrast to a social service internship she took during her gap year in which the job scope was limited to administrative tasks. There, she earned just $600 a month.
While I didn’t realise it then, I also gained something from doing internships, even when they can feel slightly exploitative. Scrolling through a post on r/askSingapore asking Singaporeans for things their colleagues did that annoyed them, I was surprised at how much I could relate to the peeves of the working adult.
These ranged from the innocuous—but unpleasant—things like colleagues leaving their dirty mugs out in the open overnight, to more insidious practices like being asked to help with tasks that fall outside your job scope, being pressured to comply with unrealistic timelines, and staying in the office beyond working hours to somehow “prove” you aren’t slacking.
In many ways, my internships have helped me to grow a thicker skin. When I needed a break from my internship to work on my university applications, I mustered the courage to ask my supervisor for two weeks of unpaid leave.
In return, I offered to prepare content in advance for the weeks that I would be away and either pre-schedule or upload the posts from home in my own time so that the company would not be affected by my absence. I remember that when I succeeded in my negotiations, it felt like I’d finally had my first taste of adulthood.
I also learned that it’s alright to walk away from a job if you don’t feel like you’re learning anything or that you’re earning at the expense of your mental health. I once resigned from a very well-paid (at least by internship standards) graphic design placement after two weeks, as I felt that the culture at my new workplace did not suit me. My boss was also often vague and passive-aggressive with his instructions.
“A boss will always ask you to go faster because if you work faster, it makes their work easier,” Bryan adds. “But it is important to sound out [to your bosses] on what is realistic for you.”
And while Bryan was initially attracted to his internship due to its brand name and prestige, he now thinks that it is more important to pay attention to whether an internship provides opportunities for learning and growth.
“Ultimately, when you do a [job] interview, no one cares how many internships [you did] or where you did your internships at,” says Bryan. “What they care about is what results you contributed to producing because that is the strongest indicator of the kind of employee you would be.”
Even though internships are still valuable, the educational value of internships is often overstated. Yes, there is learning taking place at internships, but not necessarily of the kind being marketed to prospective students and their parents. Universities need to understand and be transparent about the fact that the actual value of internships isn’t the vague notion of “industry experience”; it’s learning how to stand up for your rights in the face of harmful work practices.
The question is whether —in light of what students sacrifice—the price of these lessons is a fair one.
*‘Samantha’, ‘Bryan’ and ‘Yvonne’ are real students, who spoke to the writer on the condition of anonymity. They were concerned that they could face reprisals from their former employers for speaking up, or that it could make it more difficult for them to secure internships in the future.