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Karen Bowring, Managing Director, Professionals UK

Karen Bowring set up internship provider Professionals UK in 2005. The company has matched more than 7,000 students from 30 countries with at least 900 companies across the UK. She spoke to The PIE News about the value of agents, the satisfaction of helping international students find their ideal internships and the happy return of the Spanish market.

The PIE: Is running an internship company a messy business?

We got a name for ourselves specialising in a lot of the professional sectors – architecture and engineering. We are a bit of a one stop shop in that we can do the whole UK

Karen Bowring: It can be. For most of the time it goes very smoothly. We initially really train our agents and the schools that we work with. I go into schools and do nitty gritty training so that anyone that is going to be connected to internships in any way has got it in their bones. If they don’t know what they’re talking about, they’re not going to be able to sell it.

The school manager comes back to me a couple of days later and says “the chat in the office has been internships non-stop this week”. Everyone’s got excited and they can see what’s possible. They feel like they’re selling something else.

The PIE: So there’s a lot of joining up to do.

KB: We are dealing with a lot of peoples’ personalities. We get people who are sensitive souls, or outgoing and we are not just putting them into a classroom. We are putting them into a company and companies have got so many different cultures.

If we’ve got quite a formal student we’re not going to put them into a Google-style company, where they go and sit on a bean bag, but that would be the coolest thing ever for other young people.

Others want to go into innovative companies, or start-ups, entrepreneurial companies. But it really wouldn’t suit someone who comes from a formal, corporate background.

We do Skype interviews to get an idea of what kind of person they are. Some people come to a new country, they come to a new culture and they get lonely. Other people are not afraid at all. We have a lot of hand holding.

In our big centres of operation, we have ambassadors working who connect all the students up and they all meet up.

In smaller cities, we might not have an actual ambassador but we connect students up on WhatsApp. If they’re not coming through a school first, they don’t have a natural social base.

“Very few come to us directly. We much prefer working with agents and schools”

If they’re in a company that is young and funky and everyone goes out on a Friday night that’s great. If they’re in a more mature company, where people have got families, and they don’t want to go to the pub at five o’clock on a Friday, the student can feel a bit apprehensive.

Student ambassadors connect everybody up, and then talks to us. We are a bit like the parents.

We help them out with any difficulties, but it’s a bit like having a ready-made network of people, within the first week, they can be straight in there. When we had incidents happen in London and Manchester, the ambassadors went straight to their network to see that everyone was OK.

The PIE: Why did you decide to set up Professionals UK?

KB: [I worked] in the English language industry since leaving university and sent students to do placements with another agency.

When they came back from their placement to visit the school, they were just a different person. They were confident. They just looked like they had grown up a bit.

Their language level had [improved], because they were in offices. Everything was being spoken in English, they were catching new phrases, they were learning to talk as the natives spoke. They learned lots of industry phrases that they could take back home.

I could really see the value in internships. It just gave me the idea. Once I decided that I had run an English language school long enough, I set up my own agency. That was 13 years ago. It’s just expanded ever since.

“We’ve got five or six big nationalities. Germany is probably our biggest”

The first placement that I ever did was for a Czech student called Michaela. I placed her in an international fashion importing company and she was still there three years later as European sales manager.

Loads of people who have gone on, developed their career, and stayed in the UK. One set up a supply chain of macadamia nuts from Brazil. A graphic design student set up an office branch in Rome for the London company that she was working with.

The PIE: How do you source your clients?

KB: Very few come to us directly. We much prefer working with agents and schools, because we’ve got much better filters of people who are suitable for the work experience, in terms of language levels, their aptitude, their attitude.

[We tell agents to] imagine this person comes into their office. If they can hold a conversation with them in English, then they will be ready to do an internship. But if you have to have the conversation in Spanish or Italian, they are not ready for the program yet.

They need to be able to understand how a non-native speaker speaks English because that’s going to be at a more basic level. That’s the first good filter.

“Increasingly the Spanish market is coming back, which is great”

After that they might go to English language school or they may come through a direct route. But we really value the agent, because they are the best at directing people to the right kind of program.

We had four product designers one after the other, because they all kept sending their friends. They all came from one school in London. We told the school that we were getting a group of students from them and asked them to work with us directly. We have developed those kinds of relationships.

The PIE: For an agent, are you working on similar commission rates?

KB: Internship are much cheaper [than language schools]. Generally, we charge a net rate to the agent and they charge the gross rate in their own country. Many agents are sending to a school first, which is brilliant. [Students] do a school first, get a base of contact in a city and then go on and do an internship.

We can arrange the whole accommodation for them, so the agent can get the benefit of commission through lots of different levels. We’ve got different programs as well so they’ll get very short programs, so for a group they’ll get a group commission. For longer programs, they typically mark up 20-30%.

The PIE: It’s a slightly more intrepid thing for students to do so there is more hand holding from the agent?

KB: They will keep in contact to see how they’re doing. We send the feedback to the agent to say this student is getting on really well. The agent then sends that back through their channels.

The PIE: Are there any nationalities that are more interested in internships in your experience?

KB: We’ve got five or six big nationalities. Germany is probably our biggest, then Swiss. They tend to be younger students, often school leavers.

We work with a lot of French and Dutch universities, where they have to do a placement in the UK as part of their degree program, which is typically for twenty weeks. A lot are engineer, law, high-level business admin placements.

Increasingly the Spanish market is coming back, which is great. I love Spanish graduates and post graduates because their level of English language has really gone up. They just fit into teams easily.

They’re flexible, they go with things and they don’t expect everything to be the same as it is in Spain.

The PIE: Can you offer the program to non-EU nationals?

KB: We work increasingly with students who are at university in the UK and they’ve got three to six months left on their visa at the end or in their school holidays. That’s a growth market for us. Chinese or Thai students are the two big ones.

The PIE: How are they finding you?

KB: A specialist onshore agency for those two particular markets do all the hand-holding and ask all the nitty gritty questions because they’ve got a lot of deep cultural knowledge. Then they introduce them to us and, because they have also been studying in the UK, [the students] are half way there already.

We do some BUNAC students as well, but it’s a very long process. It can fall down at the last hurdle after you’ve jumped through a load of hoops.

One unfortunate person got a great placement, and then at the last minute, the company said they had to move because they were demolishing the block, so they couldn’t take him for those two months. We had to apply again, and he had to pay BUNAC all over again. So its really for the deeply committed.

The PIE: Do you think the internship market is getting more competitive?

KB: We’ve seen a lot of competitors coming in the last few years. We’ve been asked to partner on a local level with companies that would seemingly offer internships the world over. We do it with one or two but it’s quite limited, it’s not really our thing.

The PIE: From my perspective, it seems like it’s getting more competitive. There are a few more companies who are getting a name.

KB: Absolutely. There are some great companies out there. Different agencies tend to specialise. Some specialise in the very low level market, in terms of the youngest students and big groups.

We got a name for ourselves specialising in a lot of the professional sectors – architecture and engineering. We are a bit of a one stop shop in that we can do the whole UK. A lot of agencies specialise in the South West of the country or one particular city. There are more agencies because there is just much more demand.

The PIE: What has been your most challenging placement?

KB: We recently did a cytology [The study of cells, ed] placement for a Spanish student. It was meant to be in Manchester, it ended up being in London, because there was not one outlet for cytology in the whole of Manchester.

We had been through every hospital, every morgue, every funeral director. It became a company challenge. We were all on it, asking all our friends and connections. We finally got it through contacts of contacts of contacts from ten years back, through specialist medical teams. It was very satisfying in the end.

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