LONDON (Reuters) - Shan Jie has been working at the Radisson hotel in central London since July, waitressing in one of the restaurants or setting up for conferences.
The friendly 24-year-old laughs as she remembers how many glasses she broke by accident when she first started. Now she has settled into her job, where she is the only Chinese employee.
“Some of my colleagues ask me how to say things in Chinese. When they see me, they always say ‘ni hao’ (hello),” she said.
European bosses are saying “ni hao” a lot more these days.
Over the past couple of years companies across the region have begun to offer Chinese students internships, sometimes with Beijing’s backing, sometimes without.
Everybody wins: the local businesses get a link to China and an employee who speaks fluent Chinese for any Chinese customers, and the student gets workplace experience overseas.
Coming from a country where more than six million people graduate every year, that extra edge is essential.
A foreign degree used to be a ticket to a secure job, but now Chinese who stay at home for their university education have an advantage over students who return from overseas with plenty of academic qualifications but little practical experience.
China offers entrepreneurial students who graduate from home universities money to set up their own businesses as well as internships with local companies. It also gives loans to smaller companies that employ graduates.
Shan Jie, from Hangzhou, on China’s prosperous east coast, was studying hotel management at Surrey University and had been looking for work for two months when representatives from the Sino-UK Internship Program came to speak at her university. The program was set up by the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) in May.
China’s Ministry of Education did not reply to a request for comment on the scheme and the embassy in London also declined to comment, but Wayne Boardman, head of program development at BII China, said it was set up with Beijing’s encouragement.
“The Education Section in China wanted the UK to do something to help with these problems,” he said.
“The idea is almost to run it as a pilot in this country and in 18 months to two years roll it out in America, Australia and other areas.”
BII hopes to put 2,000 Chinese students into internships within its first year, though in its first six months just 45 students have taken part. Four out of five internships are paid.
European businesses, especially retailers, see clear benefits in hiring Chinese workers.
The number of Chinese tourists visiting Europe is expected to rise to 4.5 million in 2015 from 3 million in 2010. Across all sectors, an understanding of China is becoming more important.
“What’s been really refreshing to hear is that lots of companies have welcomed the students and used their backgrounds to do cultural exchange with their employees,” said BII’s Boardman. The interns will talk to other employees about China and even teach them a little bit of Chinese.
It helps that Chinese students have a reputation for working hard.
In the Netherlands, the not-for-profit China-Europe Growth Foundation finds jobs and internships across Europe for Chinese students. The group, which has no connection with the Chinese government, currently boasts a database of around 600 students.
“ get brilliant students. They get smart people who work very hard, who run the extra mile,” said the foundation’s treasurer, John de Weerdt.
Students pay ten euros to join the foundation and receive help with their CVs and interview preparation. De Weert said many will return to China eventually, though it depends on what opportunities they find in Europe.
He estimated the group has helped 25-50 students find jobs since the start of the year.
The schemes are spreading. Earlier this year, the Italian government established a partnership with the southern powerhouse province of Guangdong to offer internships in Italian firms.
The Italian Foreign Ministry said it is currently selecting 20 students and 12 graduates from China to receive this on-the-job training for up to six months. Italian professionals will also visit China to give lessons in business.
In France, a group of French and Chinese students set up France Chine Interaction in 2010, which helps students to find internships in both countries.
In China, the French ambassador announced the establishment of Club France in 2008, an organization for Chinese who have studied or taken internships in France to keep in touch and maintain a link to France. There are more than 3,000 members, who benefit from job and internship offers on the club’s website.
Europe is struggling with youth unemployment — across the European Union 21 percent of young people are unemployed — and so there are limits to what’s on offer.
It’s not possible for British employers to employ Chinese students permanently, for instance.
“I think internships are especially important to Chinese students, as we face tougher competition in the job market. Especially for recent graduates, because a working visa is required, which is a hassle for employers,” said Chongyang Du, 22, who worked as a research assistant at Oxford University, where he studies engineering.
“And the current UK government does not encourage graduates from outside the EU to stay and work in the UK, so we face pressure from all the players in the job market.”
Shan Jie hopes her international experience will help her land a job in a hotel back in Hangzhou, a popular tourist destination 185 km (115 miles) from Shanghai.
She especially appreciates her exposure to British culture after spending so much time with other Chinese at university. Unlike compatriots who are working in Chinese restaurants or shops, Shan now mixes with colleagues from Britain, India, Italy and Hungary and speaks English all day.
“If I just kept looking for a job by myself, I think I still wouldn’t have anything to do now,” she said.
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall