The Most Valuable Skills a Co-op or Intern Can Learn That You Help Create

What’s the most valuable skill you can learn as a college co-op on a six month assignment at a big company while you’re still early in your college career?  As a leader, what’s the experience you hope your co-op gets while s/he is in your group for those six months.  Let’s talk quickly about these types of positions then I’ll tell a quick story about the most important skills.

First let’s explore a few factors.  Co-op positions are great ways that both the student and the company can benefit.  Because they’re generally longer and have more depth than an internship there is the opportunity to develop, contribute and learn more.  Co-op and intern programs are great ways that companies can start to develop future talent and build its incoming talent pipeline. Students with already in-company experience through internships and co-ops can sometimes hit the group running even faster because they have some prior experience in that type of environment.  Finally, co-ops generally provide a great resource for the team because they can help balance the workload of the other team members and take on lower level, yet important, work that would of usually been handled by more senior resources or just not done at all.

All that being said, would the most valuable skills that the co-op learned over her/his time be the day to day how to do this particular job skills?  No.   Would the skills and experience of ‘being professional’ and working in an office environment and things like email etiquette be the most important? Good, but I don’t think they’re the most important.

The most important skills came to light for me thanks to a recent experience.  During the final week of a recent co-ops last assignment (let’s call the co-op Bob for privacy’s sake) I had the fortune of having lunch and being able to say good bye to Bob.  We talked about all he had experienced during his time at the organization and what it was like to be on certain teams and what he thinks he learned during his time here.

After listening for a while I couldn’t stop smiling.  Not one of the things he talked about had anything to do with the particular day to day aspects of his job. He didn’t talk about how he now knew the internal homegrown system we used to track support requests and he was happy he learned this random system.  He didn’t talk about how he learned how to use our conference room booking software and he was excited because he could now use that software wherever he went.  He did talk about things like learning about how big companies do things and about some important more tactical or traditional lessons, so that covered us on the common sense aspects.

The things he talked about that had me smiling had to do with what he learned about himself and what he was capable of.  He talked about gaining confidence and trust in himself and also about seeing the world in a whole new way.  He also talked about being given the seemingly impossible (in his mind) and working on making it happen.

The exact way he put this was in his examples about being given some ridiculous sounding challenges (oops, opportunities) like “see if you can find a radio station in this particular area that we can take over for 4 hours with content of our choosing, 4 days from now, for free.”  Or, “it’s December and we need one of those jersey shore type banner trailing planes to fly right next to one of the busiest airports in the country with a customized message, while the sun is coming up.”  Now, to put this in perspective – co-op Bob’s role was for website related stuff.

The way he summed it up was that when he was asked to do those ridiculous things (note: they were ‘business necessary’, just in an odd way that would take a whole different post to explain) he originally thought to himself “I have no idea what you’re even talking about, how the hell am I supposed to do that, where do I even start?”  By the end of his six month experience he said he felt like he could do anything.   He had been given the experience, and more importantly the expectation, of taking something seemingly ridiculous or impossible and making it happen.   Thankfully, he also connected the last dot when he said “if I can do that, I feel like I can do anything.”

Learning about yourself and pushing the limits on what you’re capable of, building confidence and trust in yourself, and pushing to make the impossible happen, important skills for co-ops and interns early in their professional lives.  Important things to make sure you’re trying to create for those you work with, with a safety net if things don’t work out completely.  I wonder if working on those types of skills would also be important for yourself as you progress further and further in your career?

Matt Kane

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