The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


January 2014

Learning Through Doing
Hands-on experience in workplaces can help students gain employment

By Julian Ryall

William Swinton, a governor of the ACCJ and director of International Business Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University, believes there are lessons that are best studied in academic surroundings.

But he also believes there are others that can only be absorbed in the fast-paced, dynamic, and pressured environment that is the workplace. And that is why, according to Swinton, hands-on experience will give his students an edge when it comes to finding a job.

“There are clearly lessons that can be learned more effectively in the classroom, but there are others that need to be experienced,” Swinton told the ACCJ Journal.

“An internship is an opportunity to experience the professionalism and responsibility that will be required of [students] in the future, as well as to enable them to ask questions.

“It is very important that they can integrate what they learn in the class environment with what goes on in the corporate world outside,” he added. “An internship is really student-centered learning, because each situation will pull from them all that is needed.”

Temple University, Japan Campus (TUJ) has been operating its internship program since 1991 and today has around 60 firms that welcome students into their offices.

Many members of the chamber are among the firms participating in the scheme, including the insurers American International Group, Inc., Delta Air Lines, Inc., PricewaterhouseCoopers, and human resources group Lumina Learning. TUJ students also intern at the embassies of the United States and other countries.

“We believe internships can be valuable to both sides: students and companies,” he said. “This is a chance for the companies to try out students. There have been cases in which interns have eventually been hired by the companies where they interned.”

Saori Yamanaka, vice president overseeing strategic sales and marketing in the Structured Finance division of GE Capital, agreed that there are numerous positives that result from internships.

“The students and GE both benefit from these internships,” said Yamanaka.

“We can provide opportunities for undergraduates to get an idea of how a multi-national corporation such as GE operates. This helps to prepare them when they start job hunting,” she said.

“From our point of view, we always find that it is a positive thing to have fresh and enthusiastic young faces in the office because they ask lots of questions and bring new passion to the workplace,” she added.

“We sometimes give them tasks that are designed to stretch them because we want them to acquire the skill of asking the right questions and for them to have a sense of ownership. This is essential when they become business professionals after graduation.”

GE Capital has been involved in Temple University’s intern program for one year. They have taken on four sets of students and as many as four undergraduates at any one time, together with students from other schools, and usually for between three and four months.

“We might ask them to do things that are challenging at their age, but the entire team is always ready and there to give support,” she said. “We also provide them with many networking opportunities to better learn about us from multiple angles.

“We believe this sort of coaching and mentoring provides a great experience for us as managers,” she said.

And while GE cannot guarantee employment for interns in the future, Yamanaka says the company is “always on the lookout for new talent” and hopes that the arrangement with Temple University will lead to further job opportunities for participants.

Students agree that the time they have spent at some of the largest companies in the corporate world—while gaining credits for their qualifications—has been beneficial to their development.

“I feel I gained an immense amount of cultural experience—both corporate and Japanese—as well as a better understanding of my own skills,” said Morgan Whitmer, who spent four months at Delta Air Lines in Tokyo followed by two months in the Structured Finance Division of GE Capital Japan.

Whitmer, who is originally from Atlanta, Georgia, said she did an internship to gain a better understanding of finance issues in a corporate setting and to supplement her theoretical classroom knowledge as she prepared for graduation and job hunting.

“Both these internships pushed me by giving me the opportunity to work on projects that were sometimes beyond the normal scope of undergraduate-level interns,” she said.

“I believe I am better prepared to not only enter the workforce as a foreigner in Japan, but also to face the challenges of climbing the corporate ladder with more foresight and determination to achieve my goals.”

Theo Perigo, a student of international business from Salt Lake City in Utah, had a similarly positive experience during a summer spent in the corporate communications department of AIG Japan Holdings.

“I learned quite a bit concerning the topics I was interested in, such as the kind of work involved in communications, gaishikei [foreign multi-national companies], work culture, and work–life balance,” said Perigo. “I also learned about the insurance industry, journalism, and writing skills.

“It definitely helped me in deciding on my future career path,” he added. “Working at AIG was a great experience. However, I came to the conclusion that the insurance industry was not one I would like to dedicate the rest of my career to. Now I have a much clearer vision of the type of work I want to do as well as what I don’t want to do.”

And a student realizing that a career path is not for them is just as important as finding the perfect job, said Swinton.

“Even for students of business, what goes on inside these companies is a black box,” he said. “An internship opens that box up and gives them insights on how to begin a career.”

The concept of internships is still an odd one to most Japanese companies, said Kentaro Sawa, manager of the Career Development Office at TUJ.

“While they are at university, lots of Japanese students have part-time jobs,” said Sawa. “It might give them some money, but it does not provide them with any experience in the work environment they want after graduation. And it certainly does not permit them to use their initiative.”

Recent graduates have a steep learning curve once they join a company; an internship helps them prepare. Swinton recalls one student who had to be taught the appropriate way to answer a telephone in a formal corporate setting, while others find themselves creating databases or seeing project teams in action.

“Basically, they don’t know what they do not know,” he said. “Exposure to the workplace culture gives students a clearer understanding of context, thus internships are a big part of the TUJ International Business program.”