Almost everyone starts out as an intern—and for good reason. Internships can be a great way for new grads (and even career changers) to gain new skills and valuable experience.

But to actually learn those skills, interns can’t spend the whole summer fetching coffee. So when you’re in charge of their summer experience, the pressure’s on—how do you provide the training that will prepare them for successful careers?

Turns out, you don’t have to rely solely on manuals and formal training courses. In my experience (both as an intern and in my current full-time career), I’ve found that some of the best training comes from ways you might not expect. Here are three of the most effective ways I was trained as an intern—and how you can use these methods to benefit your interns not only this summer, but for the rest of their careers.

1. Coffee Runs  

No matter how eager your interns are to get a foot in the door of your industry, making coffee runs (or doing other seemingly unimportant work, like filing papers, answering phones, or sorting mail) probably isn’t how they’d prefer to spend their summer. But, you can actually use this grunt work as a great training exercise. First, make sure they can do the basic tasks correctly (and with a stellar attitude)—then, reward them with opportunities to move on to more important assignments.

For example, during my very first internship with This Old House, I spent a lot of time editing articles and finding sources, which isn’t very glamorous—especially when I was expecting to learn more about the pitch process and how to interact with users on the website. Thankfully, I had a great mentor who trained me well: After I proved myself through that busy work, she let me pitch article topics and social media ideas in our editorial meetings.

Showing your interns that doing the not-so-fun stuff will ultimately lead to bigger and better things is a great way to train them properly—both in mastering basic skills and always having an up-for-anything attitude.

2. Ride Alongs

With slower business and shortened Friday hours (if you’re lucky), summer seems to spell lunch meetings—and these casual outings are perfect opportunities to train your interns. So, whether you’re meeting with clients or co-workers, invite your summer staff along to participate in the conversation.

First, encourage your interns to take notes during the meeting—while staying engaged in the discussion, of course—so they can learn how to take what is said and later turn it into actionable items. Say, for example, you have a lunch meeting with a vendor to touch base about an upcoming trade show. After the meeting, ask your interns to come up with a follow-up to-do list based on the meeting—whether that means sending a copy of the contract, finalizing a head count, or determining a color scheme. They’ll quickly learn how to pay attention and ask the right questions.

And as they grow more comfortable participating in the meetings, coach them on how to have intelligent conversations about their ideas. If a co-worker suggests launching a giveaway through Pinterest, teach your interns how to turn responses that don’t add much value (“Awesome idea!”) into something that backs up their opinion with concrete points (“This will be a great way to boost traffic—when Nolan Marketing’s team did a similar contest, they doubled their Pinterest followers”).

And this doesn’t have to stop at lunch meetings: When you attend a conference, lead a pitch meeting, or grab skirts at Ralph Lauren for a photo shoot, let your interns tag along. They’ll learn how to talk business—and how to make “real” conversation (you’d be surprised how many connections are made by simply saying, “I love your handbag!”). Most importantly, they’ll get a true taste of what it’s like to be in your industry.

3. Crowdsource

Whatever field you’re in, it’s important to teach your interns the critical thinking skills they’ll need to evaluate company strategies, competition, and industry trends. And one of the best ways to do this is to give your interns room to develop their own ideas, instead of strictly teaching them the methods you already use.

For example, I work in social media, so I'm always thinking about how people interact with businesses online. So to help interns get into that same mindset, I ask them to follow the company on multiple social networks and to develop new ideas for how to interact with fans.

And in fact, when I was an intern, I did exactly that: After evaluating This Old House’s social media presence, I helped create a contest that the company used for several years even after I left—because I figured out what would appeal to our readers and what would help us get more unique viewers.

You can try this for any task, even something as simple as reorganizing the office files. Instead of giving step-by-step instructions on how you’ve done it in the past, give your interns creative freedom to develop an entirely new system. They’ll learn a lot—and they just might surprise you with something you’ve never thought of before.

When you use these training methods, your interns won’t only succeed in the job they have now (being your intern), but they’ll also learn skills to use in their future careers. And who knows? You might just find your next full-time hire.

Photo of boss and intern courtesy of Shutterstock.

Updated 6/19/2020