Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines, and author of two self-published titles on Amazon.
I had an internship that lasted six weeks. It was at a machine shop operated by the local government. The facilities there were less than great; it was even hard to find a seat I could call my own, but I had a blast. We had a blast—four of my college classmates and me, that is.
Not all days were the same, but the one constant was that there was always a government-owned vehicle that was under repair. Sometimes, it was as simple as a multicab—in Filipino terms, a small retrofitted four-wheel truck—an Asian version of a small pickup. On other days, it was a dump truck, and it was on this type of day that all five of us would huddle around one of the daily-waged mechanics, watching him diagnose the actual problem like a doctor examining a patient in the emergency room.
Internships are valuable. For some college degrees, they’re essential in order to graduate. For others, like architecture and medicine, they’re a completely separate phase of education typically done after earning a diploma. The quality and quantity of internship hours vary from one degree to another. The five of us who had our internship in the city government’s machine shop were there because we needed to burn through the 240 hours that were mandated by our curriculum. How we burned through those 240 hours also varied.
If you do the math, 240 hours on a 9-to-5 weekday schedule means we were finished with the internship after six weeks. The summer internship program on our curriculum didn’t require any output, project, or report after the 240 hours were done. All that was needed was proof that we spent the 240 hours not enjoying the hot summer on a beach somewhere but instead in a professional establishment where we could get some hands-on experience with mechanical engineering.
This plain, unassuming requirement meant that there were many ways to spend the 240 hours. This vagueness allowed for some abuse and unfairly favored those who landed internships at facilities with relatively chill work cultures. In retrospect, this was a way of introducing us to the idea that culture and performance expectations vary depending on where you work, a concept we had yet to internalize as graduating students at the time.
I’m not one to namedrop or even hint at who among the five of us took advantage of the easygoing internship policy. Punching your time card in and leaving to do who-knows-what then coming back a couple of hours before dismissal in the afternoon just to lounge and punch out was a practice I didn’t know was also happening at the professional level.
As it turned out, it was happening already at the pre-professional level among my peers. Despite that happening, learning on the job was going on. The mechanics were happy to have an extra set of hands (sadly, very clean and uncalloused hands) and some engineering students they could make fun of because we were "all theory and no application." By the end of the experience, we had accumulated some learnings, many laughs, and a whole lot of grease on our soft hands.
The Daily Tasks
The first thing of the day for us was whatever was parked right in front of the machine shop. None of us interns, or OJT’s as is the other common term in the Philippines, initiated the work. Nor did the mechanics, who were usually still having their first coffee during the first hour of the workday. The day’s work was determined by a man we called "Chief," and he was probably the only one among the wage-earners who was paid monthly—that is, considered a regular employee by the city government.
Chief was such a standup guy. From the moment he fiddled with something—a wrench, a dismembered carburetor, a damaged piston—you knew he was the most skilled mechanic in the shop. Although we could casually talk with Chief and joke around, we respected him as we did our classroom professors.
None of us probably knew back then how to regard one’s boss and how to act around one, but being around chief was a good orientation. Watching and listening to someone who clearly knew what he was doing demanded our attention and respect, and we treated any task he assigned to us as an opportunity to show both our incompetence and our small but noticeable progress in learning how to work at a machine shop.
When heavy equipment was involved, we could really be introduced to something novel to us and also get a chance to take part in the repair. If I'm completely honest, I was perhaps the least hands-on among the five of us. I was also the intern with the softest and whitest hands. As Chief put it, "your hands fiddle with keypads more than they ever touch a work tool." In other words, I was the most white-collar guy in the group.
But this didn’t stop me from wanting to learn. In that internship, I learned how to tighten bolts and grease fittings. I also found value in doing manual labor. Most importantly, perhaps, I learned how to properly wash my hands.
Learning How to Wash My Hands
The COVID-19 pandemic sure made us all rethink how to wash our hands, especially back in 2020 when health experts couldn’t stop emphasizing the importance of the act.
When you work at a machine shop, the time you need to completely wash your hands exceeds the "Happy Birthday" song duration that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson recommended. Because of all the visible grease that got into and inside of our fingernails, we knew that 20 to 30 seconds was not enough. Two full minutes might have been the minimum to get all that visible grease off our hands. And even then, when we dried and smelled our fingertips, we often realized that another round was due.
The NBA Playoffs
One thing I enjoy about summer in the Philippines is that it rolls around at just about the same time the NBA Playoffs start. If it was any other ordinary summer break, I’d watch every game on TV, including the post-game coverage. But we were on our 240-hour internship at the time, so sacrifices had to be made. And this was a time when mobile internet wasn’t yet mainstream. Nowadays, you can watch any NBA game on your phone legally and illegally (it sounds bad, but pretty much everyone does it) by watching a live feed that someone puts on Facebook.
We were in the pre-4G era, the iPhone 4 was still pretty much considered a new phone, and the customary way to watch an NBA game was on TV. What I loved about our internship, though,h was that it was less than a mile from our school campus. And in our school campus was the cafeteria, which was not only known for its amazing cheese bread, but also for its widescreen TV, which broadcasted NBA games at noon.
Watching basketball at lunch was something I looked forward to every day. That was the same summer that I discovered just how good an NBA player by the name of Steph Curry was. This was before his MVP and dynasty years. At the time, I was watching a relatively unknown (to the mainstream, at least) player evolve into a star, making pull-up three-pointers look cool. It was as if I was watching Timo Cruz from the movie Coach Carter become real.
The Underlying Lesson
Enough about basketball—let's get back to talking about internships. What was the secret lesson that this internship experience provided me? My instinctive answer would be that it made me appreciate manual labor and just how lucky the five of us were to have been in a position where we wouldn’t have to face a whole life of it, especially when we graduated.
College degrees and curriculums may be out of touch with the realities of the industry sometimes, but having a degree still puts you at a competitive advantage. Many, if not all, of the workers in that shop never finished college nor even got the opportunity to enroll. We were beyond blessed.
But if you allowed me to dig deeper and find myself a better answer, the takeaway that summer was that life was truly unfair. Had we not taken any internship that summer and just proceeded to our final two semesters, we wouldn’t have had exposure to the social conditions that plagued the Philippines’ labor force. We would have graduated without gaining any perspective at all and remained on our proverbial high horses, only hearing of social inequality through TV, the internet, and other media.
The inequity was obvious at first glance. Here were these skilled workers making minimum wage, some of whose tenure were not guaranteed. Their job security depended on whether the same politician(s) would win on the next election. Imposter syndrome set in once I realized just how skilled and experienced they were in what they did. Despite this, I, a mere engineering student, would soon be more likely to get a higher-paying job than these hardworking citizens.
The Value in Internships
An internship doesn’t have to teach new technical skills or highly practical knowledge to be valuable. Those 240 hours that I spent in that machine shop didn’t really leave me being able to diagnose a car problem and know how to fix it. It would have been a big bonus if that was the outcome, but I am already thankful that the internship left me with much-needed perspective about working conditions and worker compensation. These were two issues that my country was still far behind on trying to improve.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Filipino skilled workers often take off, leaving their loved ones behind, and venture abroad. Some of these foreign countries may not even be very friendly to Filipinos, and yet, because of the promise of better compensation, everything’s worth it. Their cash flow into our economy is also helpful, as overseas remittances form a big part of the country’s GDP. Is that perhaps why wages here don’t want to mature into humane levels? Because we’re willing to sell off cheap skilled labor in exchange for dollars and riyals?
I didn’t expect to go from internships to talking about Filipino labor issues, but I realize now that it was logical for me to get to this point. If ever you are a student about to start your internship and happen to be reading this, I hope that you take more away from it than just the hours and skills you’ll gather. You’re bound to come across social issues that you just might just improve someday.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on September 24, 2021:
Internships are a wonderful way to see yourself in the field you've chosen. Of course, it's a way to practice what you are learning and you get to learn a little more. We get to see what teachers and books don't tell you about the real world - the politics, the drama, the inequities and an assortment f other realizations. And when you do graduate, you are given the choice whether to succumb to the norm or create a new reality for future employees.