As the next wave of Bangkok summer interns begin making their applications, we ask: is the city’s intern culture working?
Internships offer a backstage glimpse into the working world and for many are a direct gateway into a professional career. On the surface, it’s win-win: companies gain useful additions to their workforce while interns gain valuable work experience. In practice, however, internships can be hit or miss—nowhere more so than in the creative industries in Bangkok. “Interns in big agencies are not as well utilized as they should be,” says a source who wishes to remain anonymous but has worked at two of the biggest international creative agencies in Bangkok. “As we’re always so busy, we don’t have time to train the interns so we tend to use them for things like searching for information, doing reviews and surveys. But they are actually capable of a lot more.”
That’s exactly how Lalita (Lita) Kittisrikangwan, 23, who’s had four internships—two in the United States and two in Bangkok—felt when she interned at larger local companies. “I think the lack of policy and training programs for interns really made it disappointing,” says Lita. “Smaller companies not only put more time and effort into teaching me skills, but also allowed me to really work as if I was a full-time employee. The whole point of an internship is to learn. I was just sitting there cold-messaging people on Facebook and Twitter. It was just the worst experience, sitting there copy-pasting and barely gaining any real traction. It was really depressing.”
In contrast, Thitipol Panyalimpanun, 28, didn’t mind the minimal tasks during his internships at a Bangkok magazine and a human rights company in the U.S. “I was young. It was exciting and I was happy to do all this stuff because I’d never done it before. I didn’t feel it was crappy work no one wanted to do; I saw a typo and I was happy about [correcting] it.”
Not all companies have their interns earmarked as the office coffee-grabbers. Victoria Thoo, 29, chief operating officer at Bangkok-based digital marketing agency Primal, explains “They are a great way to bring in young, fresh talent who might not be eligible for the open roles we have, but can still add a positive contribution. It’s a learning playground. Come in, be hungry and soak up as much knowledge and experience as you can. With interns usually lacking office experience, it’s a chance for them to gain an understanding of what’s involved in different roles and understand their own career fit faster.”
While Primal employees always try to create tasks for interns, Thoo says the amount of work also depends on the intern: their skill-set, the department they are placed in and the amount of available resources. “Some responsibility falls on the intern as well to find opportunities to add value, similar to a full-time role,” says Thoo.
An unpaid privilege?
More often than not, interns in Bangkok are expected to work for free. Although the experience gained is often cited as a fair trade off, this ignores one glaring problem: elitism. Unpaid internships leave the opportunities to students who can afford university or receive financial support from their family.
Lita was lucky—she received a scholarship, giving her the flexibility to experiment with unpaid internships. “I think in the beginning it was fair because I was a first-year college student with no prior experience—I didn’t even have a proper idea of what I wanted to do,” says Lita. “I was just thankful for an amazing opportunity to jumpstart my career, grow and really find my passion.”
Thitipol experienced both paid and unpaid internships. When the work was unpaid, he relied heavily on his family and a partial scholarship for support. “I was happy just to get an internship at the time,” he says, adding that most of his friends in Bangkok either had unpaid internships or received a small stipend. “I felt like I had nothing to contribute when I started because I was in college and knew nothing. If you ask me now, I’m all for paid internships—they should not work for free.”
At Primal, Thoo says the company decides to pay an intern on a case-by-case basis. “Each business should assess what their hiring needs are when it comes to interns and shape their intern program or approach around performance, expectations and pay,” says Thoo. “If the big picture outcome is learning, performance should not suffer if financial incentives aren’t there.”
The internship culture in Bangkok
According to Thoo, creative internships in Bangkok vary wildly. “Not all companies are looking to develop their interns or give them varied experiences. Internships should be valuable for both parties,” says Thoo. “The company may also be limited by the tasks they have and the ability of the candidate—it falls on the company to then turn down an internship if they can’t fully accommodate.”
An unnamed source noted that some interns tend to get preferential treatment. “We often get requests from big bosses at the client firms asking if they can send their children to intern with us. We always say yes, of course, and these interns will obviously be treated differently. Some even get weekly one-on-one training with the management.”
Thitipol felt that his internship in the United States was more formal and organized. Whereas here internships are part of university curriculum, in the U.S. he explained that internships are often necessary just to open the door to an entry-level job, making them more competitive.
Lita echoes that the U.S. offered more structured training. “We had to attend activities and workshops to improve our personal skills. This is something that could be incorporated in Thailand more for equal value.”
So, is it worth it?
Whether paid or not, general consensus still remains in favor of interning. “I felt like I learned more about what I wanted to do in my career during my internship than I did in four years of university,” says Thitipol.
“You’ll either hate it or love it but either way you’ll learn something. Always make the most out of your experience. Ask questions, no matter how small, and you’ll grow more and more every day,” says Lita. “Plus, these internships could pimp up your resume and give you stronger leverage when you’re out there job-hunting. When you’re interviewing, these experiences can show your future employers that you were enthusiastic and ambitious enough to try out new things and explore your passions.”
And who knows, if an intern wows a company, they just might hire them. “We have had some standout interns that have gone on to quite senior roles in the company,” says Thoo. “We actively look for talented employees and interns.” Thoo encourages people to email over a CV and portfolio with a few lines about yourself to email@example.com or apply directly at www.primal.co.th/careers. She advises those interested in smaller companies or creative agencies to be bold and reach out to the company they want to intern with.
"Not all companies are looking to develop their interns or give them varied experiences."