The best summer internships will teach you these important career skills

  • Over half of students graduating college in 2017 have had internship experience.
  • College Works Painting gives student interns the opportunity to manage a house painting business from start to finish.
  • Internships can teach you skills that lay the foundation for your career, according to Ryan Coon, an entrepreneur and former College Works intern.
Peter Dazeley | Getty Images

When Ryan Coon was a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and studying accounting and finance, it would have made sense for him to intern in an accounting firm or at a big bank.

Instead, Coon took an internship with College Works Painting, a company that offers interns the chance to run their own painting businesses in locations across the United States. College Works Painting insures the student-led businesses and provides them with management training and paint materials.

The student intern is responsible for the logistics, hiring and managing each paint job as well as their finances. The prices charged are competitive with other contractors and backed by a quality guarantee; if anything goes wrong, College Works Painting will fix it. The minimum pay for the summer is $4,000 for interns ($2,500 for those in California) who meet the program requirements, but interns can make more than that if they manage their business well.

That sounded enticing back in 2004 to Coon, who knew he wanted to start his own company someday. He spent the summer running a house painting operation in the suburbs of Chicago.

“I got exposure and experience in all aspects of running a business,” Coon said. “It taught me a lot about what it means to go through the highs and lows of being an entrepreneur.”

The experience proved worthwhile. Immediately after graduating, Coon landed a full-time job in an investment bank. Later, it paid off again; In 2011, Coon left banking to start his own company, Avail, an online platform that helps independent landlords manage their properties. He said his time at College Works gave him a foundation in business principles he still uses today.

"I got exposure and experience in all aspects of running a business. It taught me a lot about what it means to go through the highs and lows of being an entrepreneur." -Ryan Coon, co-founder and CEO of Avail

Over half of students graduating in 2017 have internship experience, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The conversion rate, however, from internship to full-time job is down 1.3 percent for the graduating class of 2018.

Graduates of the College Works Painting internship, however, fare well in the job market. More than 90 percent of former interns have a college-graduate job three months after getting their degree. To find an internship that will help you build the skills for a full-time career, Coon and Matt Stewart, the co-CEO of College Works Painting, shared the following advice.

Do instead of watch

Find an internship that will let you get your hands dirty instead of observing or shadowing others in an office environment.

“Take an educated guess on where you want to be in three years, five years and 10 years,” Coon said. “And try to gain experiences that will help you down the road.”

An internship outside of the industry where you want to end up may serve you well, as Coon found from his College Works Painting experience.

“It’s an incredibly difficult challenge, managing your own business — and that’s what our interns are doing,” Stewart said. “Doing is proving you have a work ethic, proving you have the skills.”

Build and test leadership ability

Stewart said the best internships are the ones that give opportunities to develop leadership skills, because students might not have them yet. Developing responsibility and focus are important, no matter what your career goals are.

College Works Painting interns have to face the real consequences of their business decisions.

“The stakes are real,” said Stewart. “There are real people depending on real income.” In addition, interns' bonuses are based on their profitability, an added incentive to work hard.

"It’s an incredibly difficult challenge, managing your own business — and that’s what our interns are doing." -Matt Stewart, co-CEO, College Works Painting

Coon found that running his own painting business helped him learn about focus, persistence and how crucial a good team is to success.

“Building anything of any significance takes a lot of time and hard work,” Coon said. “It can be tempting at times to give up but you have to stick with it and stay focused and keep working hard.”

Learn about new industries or careers

One of the missions of College Works Painting is to show students the career options that are available to them, said Stewart.

“What we find is students today know what their parents do, what their best friend’s parents do and what’s on television,” Stewart said. “We try to expose them to new careers and help them find a career path while they are with us.”

Keeping an open mind and trying a lot of different things will serve you well in the long run, Stewart said. Sometimes, students will think they know exactly what they want to do – until they try it.

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