Career & College Planning: Job shadowing introduces students to workplace

The Shadow knows ... At least he did when it was all said and done.Growing up I was huge fan of old-time radio serials. One of my favorites was “The Shadow,” which spotlighted an invisible crime fighter who used his many gifts, including his powers of observation, to unlock mysteries.This practice of using reason, and other gifts at his disposal, served the Shadow well in his crime-fighting adventures, and it’s these same skills that serve those who are interested in learning more about careers through a process knowing as job shadowing.In my last column, I shared the value of following skill and passion when considering career exploration. To this point, I affirmed the value of taking a career interest inventory for young people to gain greater insight to careers that would best use their gifts and talents. With some career ideas in mind, a natural progression would be spending time shadowing professionals who work in one’s area of interest.Job shadowing has become one of the hottest ways for young people to get a birds-eye, or perhaps I should say “groundhogs-eye” view, of what particular careers are like. Just yesterday, while some waited for that precocious Punxsutawney Phil to leave his burrow at Gobblers Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa., to make his prediction for the remainder of winter, thousands of young people popped up around the country to take part in the annual Groundhog Shadow Day.According to the American Lodging and Hotel Association, last year more than one million students and 100,000 businesses across the country participated in this national program, including more than 2,000 restaurants and hotels who hosted nearly 20,000 reports that the first Groundhog Job Shadow day was spearheaded by a coalition that included America’s Promise — The Alliance for Youth ; Junior Achievement ; the Association for Career and Technical Education ; the Society for Human Resource Management ; the U.S. Department of Education ; and the U.S. Department of Labor.It’s often the glamour and the riches that attract people to careers. The reality is that things are not always as they appear. What looks to be idyllic from afar can look very different up close. “You will be able to see firsthand what someone in that position does, rather than just reading on the Internet or hearing from others,” says Megan Hendricks, director of employer relations in the College of Business at the University of South Florida. “This will help you make an informed decision about whether you want to work in that company or industry, saving yourself potential heartache down the road.”Another benefit of job shadowing is the rsum-building opening it offers, depending upon the level of involvement one is afforded. If the opportunity provides an on-going connection and some level of responsibility with the business, a “shadower” can, with a supervisor’s permission, include his/her tenure on a rsum. For a young person trying to get started on a career, the ability to list an involved job shadow shows initiative and it also demonstrates vital experience, which can help differentiate oneself from the field in the future. “While you are shadowing, you can meet people and impress them with your communications skills,” Hendricks says. “This gives you an edge over job candidates who have not met company representatives in person. It shows the company you have a strong interest in working for them if you are willing to take unpaid time out of your schedule to shadow them.”Part and parcel to the rsum fodder it provides in terms of experience, job shadowing also grants participants the chance to begin or expand their list of relationships in the industry, which is invaluable for advancement purposes. The chance to develop a strong reputation can result in quality references for aspiring professionals. “While your shadowing guide might not be able to land you a job within their company, if they see potential, they will be willing to share contacts in the industry,” says Katie Mattson, a life coach at Momentum Coaching. “As you begin to inquire about shadowing opportunities, each of those companies has access to your name and is aware that you’ll be contacting them again regarding possible employment,”So, how does one obtain a job shadow opportunity? Well, there are several avenues one could take to at least get a foot in the door. The best place to start is in the home and the relationships that household members have and their ability to at least make an introduction. The concept of the “six degrees of separation” and the ability to capitalize on different associations to get an introduction is also viable.There are other approaches outside the confines of warm relationships that young people can consider to getting job shadow experience. Local service organizations represent a rich source of opportunity. These groups, which contain some of the most magnanimous individuals in any community, are focused on giving back to the area. Finding out when they meet and contacting one of the officers for a chance to attend a meeting could be fruitful.Another method is to make a list of businesses in the area within one’s passion zone, and make it a point to drop by and seek an appointment with the appropriate individual. This approach takes persistence, but if it’s a career that someone really wants to know more about, it will be worth it. It also send a strong message about the applicant’s passion and conviction.Whatever approach one uses, the applicant must, when meeting prospective mentors, be willing to be dressed for the job they wish to have. Err to the side of caution. Aim high; wear a tie, or something of that ilk.It also requires that they have a well written (and tailored) one-page letter of introduction explaining who they are and exactly what they hope to accomplish during the experience. Young people who have some work experience, whatever it is, should also attach a rsum. Even if the work experience on one’s rsum is not relevant to the opportunity being sought, being able to list work experience, in a general sense, demonstrates drive.Finally, brush up on your interviewing skills. “You never know if (a meeting) could turn into an informal interview for a job,” says Rick Smith, PhD, director of career development at the Smith Career Center at Bradley University . “Dress nicely and arrive 10 to 15 minutes before the scheduled time. It is appropriate to take notes, but be careful not to let it interfere with your conversation.”What one does with, and after, the opportunity are topics for another day. The key thing is getting your foot in the door for the experience it offers, for the rsum-building it provides, and for the contacts it can generate. At the end of it all — the shadow will know.• Brian Underwood is the executive director of Sierra Lutheran High School. He can be reached at


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