Step on to the UAE career ladder with internships

Interns are proving they are valuable - but also having a hard time finding paid work.

Kiera Purdue, the director of the boutique PR agency StickyGinger in Dubai. Courtesy Kiera Purdue
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For recent graduates struggling to find jobs, internships are becoming more essential than ever as they bridge the undefined gap between graduation and employment.

“At we always see a healthy demand for internships, especially from graduates,” says Suhail Masri, the company’s vice-president of sales. “We also see a growing demand for interns across industry sectors as more and more employers actively seek to tap into this vital pool of fresh skilled talent.”

From an employer’s point of view, internships are a great way to spot talent and encourage interest in industries, says Phil O’Sullivan, the bureau chief at CNN Abu Dhabi. “When you are looking at a lot of resumés on a daily basis, anything that suggests a job applicant knows what they want and have actively sought experience in that field suggests a level of commitment I would be impressed by.”

However, in return for the hands-on training, valuable experience and beaming letters of recommendation that an internship offers, young graduates are sometimes expected to work full time for no pay.

According to a recent poll on internships in the region, 36 per cent of companies look for interns to simply cut on costs.

“Internships should be paid to a certain degree, otherwise it’s just free labour,” says Sara Al Banna, a 23-year-old Palestinian photography graduate from Sharjah who has been working as an unpaid intern for nearly a year as she looks for a permanent job. “I’m not saying interns should be paid the same amount as a mid-career professional, but a bit of support wouldn’t hurt.”

The boom of internships in the UAE has also attracted graduates from abroad looking to gain work experience.

Lena Elhibir, who came to Dubai from the UK for a three-month fashion internship, sees interning as a vital step to building her career.

“In a field such as fashion, internships are vital,” says the international relations graduate. “Getting into the industry without any work experience is not an easy thing to do, and I am definitely open to doing another internship after my current one.”

Elhibir also has opinions on the topic of unpaid internships.

“Back home it is the absolute norm to expect food and travel expenses to be covered, but here that is not always the case,” explains the 23-year-old. “However, I think that as long as you value your internship and gain as much as you can from it, you don’t place an emphasis on the lack of expenses.”

Sonam Lakhani, a 25-year-old editorial intern from India who lives in Dubai and is nearing the end of her internship at a publishing company, believes that interns should ideally be paid, but that the benefits of the experience outweigh the lack of monetary compensation.

“My internship has taught me so many skills and has given me a great platform to learn and experience things that will benefit my career in the long run,” she says.

Still, despite gaining valuable experience, some graduates in the UAE are having trouble finding work experience in their respective fields. The fine arts graduate Mona Al Marzouqi feels that there is a marked lack of diversity when it comes to jobs available to her as a UAE national. She has been searching for a work opportunity for nearly a year.

“As an Emirati, I feel that I’m always put in this box when it comes to my career choices,” says the 25-year-old. “Ideally, I would like to work in the art industry or the humanitarian sector. Administration, banking, engineering – these are the jobs I’m expected to want to do. I believe there is a serious lack of concern when it comes to developing the skills of graduates in the creative field here in the UAE.”

Jason Mathias, the founder of the UAE’s first video CV career portal, acknowledges these concerns and is pushing for change.

“The problem is, most graduates love creative jobs and sometimes it becomes hard to find enough internship opportunities in those fields,” he says. “By connecting students and fresh graduates to companies for internships, traineeships and full-time jobs, InternsME gives young people a creative outlet to showcase themselves and get noticed.”

Personal experience

Reem Buhazza struggled to find a job after graduation, but says two internships have polished her talent and prepared her for the professional world

"The stark realities of "the real world" hit me like a ton of bricks soon after graduation. The seemingly perfect CVs I sent out never got replies, and entry-level jobs in my field were slim to none. My peers who pursued careers in the sciences seemed to have it easy, with several graduate traineeships and plush junior positions available at their disposal. As a writer, I had no option but to embark on the intern road less travelled, one of which was at The National. Despite the horror of some of my relatives ("you work for free?!" they gasp, completely bewildered at the notion) and the discontentment of parents who would like to see me with a permanent, paid position ("when are you going to get a real job?"), choosing to build up my experience through interning was the best post-graduate decision I made. Internships gave me the opportunity to get my foot in the door of major publications, to get my work published and see those precious bylines. However, when I began my interning experience, my glittering promise was marred by a rusty work ethic. Other than a part-time retail job at university, I hadn't the slightest idea about the work world. Now, with two internships under my belt, my attitude to work is very different to when I first started out.

"My growth didn’t come from sitting in an office full of busy people and feeling isolated – feeling part of a team is what I gained most out of my internships. Even though in some cases I wasn’t being paid for my efforts, feeling like I was an essential component of the company is what drove me to work hard. I wouldn’t dream of letting my team down – deadlines were gravely important and sick days were only an option if I flat-lined. This is why I think internships are so important – they polish up young talent and prepare them for the pressures of a professional environment."

Kiera Purdue, the director of the boutique PR agency StickyGinger in Dubai Media City, gives us her tips on how to make an impression during your internship:

Show initiative by bringing your directors unique ideas and creative input to show that you are more than simply someone filling either a slot in your CV or your summer vacation.

Make yourself irreplaceable and don't just work to a "To Do" list that you're given. Add your own spin.

Surprise people with bringing more to the table than they expect. You're a smart person – you wouldn't be there if you weren't. So prove it – every day if you can.

Don't confuse over-delivery with sucking up.

And the best advice – if you're lucky enough to be offered a paid or permanent role with an agency, do not for one second let your standards slip. There's nothing worse
than an "Intern Gone Bad" once there's a pay cheque involved. Permanency should not ever equate complacency.

Some websites to try

This career portal that advertises jobs, internships and freelance positions for fresh graduates aims to mitigate youth unemployment in the region.

There are various media internship and traineeship opportunities for graduates available at this innovative Abu Dhabi-based company.

With its unique video CV concept, this new job portal connects graduates to job opportunities and boasts more than 3,000 members.

Internship opportunities, jobs and graduate programmes in the UAE and beyond.

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