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Internships gaining currency, start-ups the new favourites

New Delhi/Bangalore: When Gunjan Aggarwal launched her training and placements start-up Avsarr Quest Pvt. Ltd with two friends in April 2007, it was just the three of them. And 12 interns.
With little money but a lot of contacts, she recruited commerce and English students from University of Delhi and taught them everything, from how to answer a phone to how to conduct market research.

“I would talk to professionals in the industry with 15 years of experience and (developed the) confidence to talk to people about everything,” says Nishca Arora, an Avsarr intern. “Today, if I was made to stand in front of the CEO, I won’t be afraid to even say ‘hi’, which earlier I would have been.”

Aggarwal’s experience with interns has worked so well that she is starting a website, Duplacements.com, in March to help connect students with other companies interested in internships (the website is not affiliated to University of Delhi).

The concept of an internship—working for less money in exchange for basic job experience—has been popular in Western countries but is only now gaining currency with Indian employers and students. In a mutually beneficial arrangement, a growing number of Indian students are looking for work experience before graduation and Indian start-ups are looking for new, cheaper ways of getting work done.

Around 70-80% of the 120 companies registered on another internship portal, Hellointern.com, are start-ups or small- to mid-size businesses, according to one of the website’s founders, Abhishek Sharma. Sharma, who is a mechanical engineering student at IIT Bombay, says his own experience as an intern at five companies, including CNBC TV18 and Bharti Airtel Ltd, spurred him to launch the portal two years ago.

“The point is, these days students want to have some relevant work experience before they graduate, and they want to explore their interests before they decide on a career option,” he says.

Engineering graduate Fatema Dalal, for example, decided on a career in artificial intelligence only after interning with robotics training firm TRI Technosolutions Pvt. Ltd, or TRI. “When I graduated from engineering college, I was very unclear about what I wanted to do,” she says.

Start-ups often use internships as a way to attract top talent even though they don’t have much brand recognition. Engineering design software company FEAST Software Pvt. Ltd, for example, hired four project-based interns from campuses last year but later promoted them to full-time employees. “During the internship, we got to learn all the technical processes of the project from start to finish and the company was a good fit for what I studied,” says Hari Chandekar, who interned with the start-up for a year before returning to a full-time position.

For college students finishing degrees in streams such as commerce and for those working in small companies, the roles are often loosely defined and research-oriented. Start-ups like to use interns for market research in the 18-25 age group, says Aggarwal.

Engineering students and those at more established firms tend to have more structured roles. Roshan D’Silva, who heads Paytronic Network Pvt. Ltd, a 150-person company that collects and disburses payments, hires three-four interns every year (out of 40-50 applicants) and matches each with a senior manager to shadow and assist during the internship period.

And start-ups tend to give interns more scope. “The lines between customer research, sales and marketing are not as evident as in large corporates, so there is less restriction on what your role is,” says Amit Modi, who interned with telecom software company Vegayan Systems Pvt. Ltd while in business school and returned to the firm as a marketing executive.

Agrees Mufaddal Jhaveri, an intern at TRI who plans to pursue a postgraduate degree in robotics engineering, “In my previous internship at a large financial firm, my unit was just a small part of a much bigger product. But here, though I’m from a computer science background, I also learn about other aspects of robotics such as embedded systems.”

Indian college students often enrol in postgraduate programmes after graduation, and most active college placement offices focus on matching students with permanent, full-time jobs.

For those looking for temporary positions, there weren’t too many options and students often had to rely on family connections to hear about internship openings. Now, websites are stepping in to help. “We observed students getting an internship and it was all about whether you knew an uncle or an aunty in that organization,” says Hellointern.com’s Sharma.

Given the background and contacts of the website’s founders, around 60% of Hellointern.com’s registered users are engineering students. Sharma and his co-founders promoted the website through Orkut, Facebook and othersocial networking portals along with emails to placement representatives around the country.

They focused on engineering and management colleges outside the top tier of IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management). “People in IIMs don’t need our services much,” says Sharma. Around 70% of registered engineers, says Sharma, come from institutes other than IITs.

Aggarwal relied initially on her personal network to find interns at Avsarr but realized the effort required to visit campuses to recruit interns every year wasn’t sustainable for most companies.

Most other employers that she expects to list positions on her website are also start-ups or small businesses, she says, and those looking for seasonal help. Travel firms, for example, she says, need extra help in their peak months of June and July

Stipends for engineering students range from Rs5,000-10,000 per month and for arts or commerce graduates, from Rs3,500 to Rs5,000 per month.