Rockstar internships are for rockstar interns

A reader’s comment on my commentary on lousy internships caught my eye. 

She mentioned she had to handhold interns to run data, do up the analysis, and prepare a presentation – and in the end, the work they submitted was unchecked, sloppy and worthy of a big red F.

On a separate occasion, a Facebook post that went viral drew my attention. 

Someone asked one of their interns to top up the paper in the copying machine as it was empty. So the intern did just that, but it still won’t print.

A few seconds of CSI revealed that the intern had indeed loaded the ream of paper into the machine … with the packaging intact. I guess the intern took his reference from how things work from a Nespresso machine.

It was an epic facepalm moment for many, but I don’t find it surprising.

I had opportunities to give talks at many different schools over the years. The buildings and locations might be different, but one thing is constant – the undergrads are very “lepak” (relaxed).

They are there to clock credits, not so much to learn. At first, I thought it was me and my monotonous, not newscaster-ready dictation voice. 

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But a quick check with the organising lecturer relieved me – I’m not the only one (that faces nonchalant students, not the voice thing).

And if you think those are isolated cases, I have seen it at university career fairs, too – with huge, visible differences between local and international students.

The international students queued up outside the school hall, waiting anxiously with their pens and notebooks. Once the gate was opened, they would rush from booth to booth, scribbling down pages after pages of notes.

On the other hand, the local students would stroll in just before lunch and after sleep. Then, wandering around in their flip flops, they would peer around for a few minutes and go off to their brunch.

But I get it.

Internships can be a boring bag of stuff – made worse if the internship was derived from a discipline you aren’t passionate about.

Whatever the case is, the past is fixed, but the future is waiting for us to mould. 


For an intern, an internship represents the best possible opportunity to get a headstart in your career and possibly the best way to land a job without all the discrimination and trauma of a job interview.

One of my better hires was an intern who went beyond her call of duty. She completed her internship with flying colours, went back to complete her third year, and we hired her as a full-time staff right away. This is her 10th year with the company. 

But that was 2008. At the point where we are today, and with the prevalence of automation, jobs will get harder to come by.

According to a study of 46 countries and 800 occupations by the McKinsey Global Institute, up to 800 million global workers will lose their jobs by 2030 and be replaced by automation.

Yet starting salaries for fresh uni grads continue to hit new highs. According to the annual survey of graduates from the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, and Singapore Management University, fresh grads who found a job took home a median monthly salary of S$3,400, up from S$3,300 in 2016.

Companies can do the math. Increasingly many have switched to hiring people outside of Singapore as they are much cheaper and have the required skills. 

Whether to hire a developer in India or a support staff in Batam, cost-cutting efforts are escalating as businesses grapple with other cost factors that have few alternatives or can’t be outsourced (including rental or the boss’ Mercedes).


But this cross junction represents an excellent opportunity for interns who already have a foot in the door to impress the heck out of your potential future employer.

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Every one of my past interns who left great impression shares a few common traits – they will ask, “what else do you need me to do” they sincerely apologise when they mess up, and they genuinely want to learn.

That means a lot in a corporate environment where taiji masters abound.

At the end of the day, if interns give themselves a chance and take the opportunity to get serious about their internships, their employers will naturally reciprocate. 

It still might be mind-numbing work, and the office might not have the kind of pantry that Google or Facebook does, but it teaches you to level up when things are down and out.

Then, you can truly excel when things are going your way and get something out of your internship experience – if not a job, at least a stirling recommendation letter.

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