02/13/2013 06:29 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

Building a Framework for a Successful Internship


Today, the most valuable college education includes a meaningful internship. Students learn valuable skills to complement their classroom learning and help them figure out the next step in their careers. Internships also offer students important networking opportunities that can payoff nicely when they officially enter the workforce.

But while almost every college has an internship program, not all programs are the same, and students need to be sure that the position they choose is the one best suited for their needs and course of study. This includes ensuring that the internship offers the right level of rigor and focus, while putting the needs of the student first and foremost.

By shifting the focus back to students from what a company needs, we are redefining what an internship means and setting a framework for success.

Working to place approximately 4,100 students in internships each year, you learn a thing or two about what makes for a successful internship. Internships can no longer be viewed as a way for companies to secure free or inexpensive labor from an area college student, nor can students try to breeze through internships without showing a solid level of effort. And finally, the universities that structure internship programs need to balance the two, ensuring that both employer and student are benefiting.

This requires resources and investment by the universities. A good model justifies this investment as feedback from employers can provide current analysis of the university's curriculum and identify gaps in students' skill set. The main thing is that all parties -- student, company and university -- must experience a win-win.

To achieve this, several elements must be in place:

• A set of learning expectations/deliverables to which all parties understand and commit: The student should work to set and agree to certain learning expectations and deliverables regarding the internship from the beginning, and the company needs to commit to helping the student achieve these. In addition, both parties must be held accountable to make sure each side is holding up their end of the bargain.

• Clear expectations of the job requirements: Similar to learning expectations, a set of clear expectations of what is required from the student while on the job is important. This helps to guarantee students will be capable of handling assigned tasks, while ensuring that companies will benefiting from students' contributions.

• A streamlined communication structure: This works in several directions when done correctly. The student needs to be communicating with both the employer and the university (most likely via a professor) about the experience, and the employer and university need to be comfortable raising issues if something is not working. Open lines of communication should be established in case issues occur or for general troubleshooting.

• Financial compensation for the work: Like other skilled workers, students deserve pay for their time and labor. Whether provided by the company or the institution, adequate compensation must be provided to the student. At my institution, Johnson & Wales, the university dedicates $4 million each year into providing stipends to students for internships that are unpaid.

• Flexibility and creativity: This should be expected from both the company and the institution to ensure that whatever is being taught in the internship relates back to the student's academic curriculum. While most internship will have some degree of mundane tasks that are necessary for keeping the business running, for an internship to be worthwhile, it needs to provide students with a framework of meaningful experiences through which new skills are identified and learned.

While putting these requirements in place does require some additional steps, the benefits pay off. In a structured internship where the university is deeply engaged, students have an advocate assigned to help them with any situations that may arise during the internship, and the employers have a partner in assisting with the learning. Companies get enthusiastic workers (and potentially future employees) with new ideas, and students get a range of experience that helps them hone in on their area of study with real-world expertise.

For all three parties, this internship framework yields the most solid return on investment. Who can argue that this isn't the best strategy for everybody?