Securing work experience for remote students

Nearly 10% of students enrolled at Xi’an Jiaotong University-Liverpool International Business School Suzhou still cannot return to campus due to Covid-19 restrictions. Although the school has overcome many online teaching challenges, two constant concerns for distant international students are the lack of practical experience and the difficulty in finding quality internships. During the initial outbreak, the business school organized overseas internships for postgraduate students in countries like Indonesia. However, work experience opportunities for undergraduates, especially those in countries outside of our faculty’s networks, were lacking. Based on student feedback, our team has developed two month-long programs to fill this gap. These initiatives help students develop soft skills, gain industry experience, and achieve the 100 internship hours required by their university programs.

Here we describe these initiatives and draw lessons for institutions looking to help distance learning students gain hands-on experience.

Online consultations

One initiative, an online business counseling program, leverages faculty members’ business contacts to offer online counseling internships to undergraduate students. Piloted in 2021, the online program saw around 55 undergraduate students work in eight teams, with each team aiming to solve a problem provided by a separate company. A faculty mentor with expertise in their assigned consulting area and a professional mentor from their chosen company guided each team. After an intensive four-week period involving regular meetings with mentors, the teams presented their findings to company representatives and other participants.

Students provided solutions on issues spanning social media management, corporate social responsibility (CSR), innovation management, customer and competitor research, human resource and talent development, and organizational psychology. The companies involved were equally diverse, with industries including eyewear, engineering, food and beverage, and new energy vehicles. Internationalization was a strong theme, as companies gained knowledge of potential international markets.

The majority of students said they would recommend the program to future cohorts, citing benefits such as the opportunity to work on real-world problems, the ability to learn from expert professors and business leaders, and the opportunity to work with students from different backgrounds. The 2022 program will include leading companies such as Lenovo and Oatly.

Best tips:

  • Launch the project with the support of senior management and link participation in the program to the research and career development objectives of academic staff
  • Leverage the corporate contacts of your academic staff to partner with a wide range of companies and to gain more engagement from partner companies to enhance the experience for all attendees
  • Keep the project short and have at least three clear milestones. This competition includes an introduction to company representatives (week one), a mid-term verbal status report (week 2) and a final presentation of results (week 4)
  • Instead of assigning team roles to students, leave the final responsibility for managing the project to the senior academic staff member. Each will have their own style of project management and will likely provide students with a level of autonomy over their responsibilities. However, provide students with a clear crisis resolution system via social media to manage conflicts that cannot be resolved at the team level.

SDGs virtual business project competition

A second one-month program, the SDG Virtual Business Project Competition, aims to expose Chinese and international students to various ideas from other countries and universities and make a positive impact on the planet. In collaboration with the asia institute, the business school invited students from around the world to form teams of six and compete online to bring solutions to environmental and societal issues facing businesses and NGOs based in Asia. These cases are directly linked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and include topics such as gender equality, environmentally friendly production and sustainability.

The four-week competition includes professional development workshops and mentorship meetings, allowing students to improve their project management and cross-cultural skills while working on their cases. It ends with a presentation of the conclusions of each team. The competition provides opportunities to observe the impact of a competitive or playful environment on student learning and the quality of work. Ninety-six students are enrolled in American and European universities and our school.

Best tips:

  • Partner with institutions and networks to reach a wider audience of students and businesses or NGOs. Ideally, these would be found through academic staff connections or the school’s existing partners and networks, QTEM for example. Our partner for this project is the Asia Institute, an education network or platform we have partnered with before.
  • Creating teams with students from multiple universities and countries, as we are doing for this project, can be challenging in terms of cultural and geographic barriers and requires frequent communication. Students must meet at least three times a week, including at least one weekly mentoring session, but can contact their mentor quickly through the WeChat and Whatsapp competition groups for any urgent questions.
  • For this competition, the additional professional development workshops will focus on the UN SDGs, time management and organizational skills, cross-cultural understanding and presentation skills. These will be led by our faculty with expertise in these areas and trainers from the Asia Institute
  • Continuous improvement can be achieved through student surveys and informal company feedback to academic staff.

Post-pandemic hands-on experience

The ability to provide online work experience in the form of consulting projects has proven effective in helping students gain internship hours as well as invaluable experience in a world where virtual work can be a permanent feature. . Given the vital importance of ethical and sustainable business practices, a focus on these topics can generate even greater impact for the students and businesses involved.

Ewout van der Schaft is Professor of Management and Associate Dean of International Affairs, and Alex Mackrell is International Head of Public Relations and Brand, both at the International Business School Suzhou (IBSS) of Xi’an Jiaotong University- Liverpool.

If you found this interesting and would like to receive advice and insights from academics and university staff straight to your inbox each week, subscribe to THE Campus newsletter.

Maria D. Ervin