What’s the point of offering internships? To many employers, interns are just an easy source of utility personnel, dealing with minor day-to-day duties, administrative tasks, and the occasional coffee run.

But this approach wastes talented individuals and loses sight of the original purpose of an internship — to give students and soon-to-be-hires a chance to gain practical experience. Interns aren’t mindless grunts, and they can’t gain experience if they aren’t performing relevant tasks.

Common Intern Complaints

So why are so many employers reluctant to give their interns proper experience? One common complaint is that interns can lack focus or certain skill sets. That said, the hope is that interns will work just as hard as full-time employees, if not harder, with the goal of perhaps one day landing full-time positions in their space. However, although we want interns to exceed our expectations, we can’t demand 100 percent commitment every day of the week.

Interns can’t be expected to be as knowledgeable as permanent staff, yet many employers complain that their interns aren’t skilled enough to handle projects on their own. It’s irrational to hold an intern to the same standard as permanent staff members with years of experience. If an intern has lied about his or her skills, this complaint is justified, but the point of an internship is to provide an opportunity to gain those exact skills.

What Interns Want

Universum polled more than 65,500 students to find out what aspects of an internship they valued most highly. Full-time employment was the top priority, but digging deeper revealed much more: 42 percent wanted exposure and experience, 29 percent wanted great references, and 19 percent wanted flexible working schedules.

Companies should reflect these desires in their internship programs for one clear reason — retention. The study also shows that employees who interned at companies before joining have higher retention rates than those who didn’t. In the end, internships are long-term investments in talent acquisition, and they need to be structured accordingly.

What Interns Need

I’ve seen poor internship opportunities, and I’ve seen great ones, too. I’ve seen banking and finance interns tackle appropriate-sized projects, and I’ve seen interns at engineering firms performing mundane office tasks without ever getting a look at a design. But whatever the industry, there are two things that interns need:

1. Real-world exposure: Some employers might consider it risky, but I’ve brought interns along on business luncheons so they can watch me negotiate. It’s important for interns to gain exposure to the day-to-day running of a business, and giving them the chance to see negotiations taking place or details being finalized is an invaluable opportunity for them to see how business works.

Interns should be given the chance to see the measurable results of their own work, too. If they’re working under a marketing team, they should be shown how their contributions to a project grew the number of sessions on the platform. This kind of approach helps an intern take pride in his or her work and feel like a part of the company.

2. B2B and B2C communication: Interns can learn a great deal about how an industry works by learning how businesses interact with each other and with their customers. For example, a sales intern can learn a lot by shadowing a sales associate. He or she doesn’t need to close sales directly to gain experience; it’s more important just to be involved.

And marketing interns can learn how businesses reach their target audiences by working with marketing professionals to address customers through various channels. Witnessing these kinds of transactions gives interns a real opportunity to understand the business, and if they understand it, they will be more likely to succeed in the long run.

How to Structure Your Internships

We’ve hired many of our interns to join us on a full-time basis. Most of them are still with us today. During their internships, we focused on building a sound structure to provide experience and help them appreciate our company culture. Here’s how we structure our internships:

  • Create a calendar together. Outline the due dates of important tasks and projects. These dates should reflect recurring events and not minor day-to-day tasks. If an intern is tackling one large project, break it down into several stages and give each stage a due date. This calendar should be set in stone so the intern understands the importance of structure.
  • Have interns create to-do lists. These don’t need to be planned as far in advance as the calendar, and they shouldn’t be as structured, either. To-do lists should be flexible, changing by the day and even by the hour. Interns must be solely responsible for these to help them gain independence and avoid accidental micromanagement.
  • Teach time-management skills. If an intern is in college, time-management skills should be a given. But it’s important to teach interns how to prioritize in response to the fast-paced environment of a startup. This lesson will stay with an intern for a lifetime and help him or her understand how others meet deadlines and tackle the fires around the office.
  • Set and track key performance indicators. Data is everything in business today, and it should drive personal decisions, too. Work with interns to establish and track their own key performance indicators, and use these KPIs to structure performance reviews. They could be learning-based, project-based, or a mixture of the two depending on the intern and his or her role. These KPIs make it easier to review an intern’s strengths and weaknesses, providing value to both the intern and the company.

Internships are meant to provide practical experience through exposure. While interns themselves have plenty to worry about outside the walls of the office, it’s an employer’s responsibility to teach and establish a pattern of experience during the workday, even if he or she isn’t planning on hiring the intern for a full-time position. The right structure is essential to this process.