Job Shadowing Can Save Time, Money, and Remorse

Man standing and facing very large shadows.Recently, I had the privilege of serving on a panel to judge presentations given by high school seniors regarding their career and educational plans. Over the course of several days, I listened as graduating students, accompanied by their PowerPoint presentations, detailed how they planned to pursue their careers, continue their educations, and achieve various personal goals in their lives.  The high school had made online resources available to students to assist them in learning about which careers would be consistent with their personal interests and desires, and the students then investigated what it would take to enter those careers, looking at the educational requirements, finding out which colleges offered applicable programs, etc.

As you might expect, the goals were as varied as the personalities and interests of the students who envisioned them.  Some planned to enter the military to gain experience, travel, and receive college assistance benefits. Others saw themselves pursuing lengthy and academically challenging paths ultimately leading to becoming physicians, nurses, physical therapists, and other healthcare providers. Some sought to become self-employed entrepreneurs, mechanics, accountants, or involved in various creative arts.

Requiring middle and high school students to explore careers and then develop plans to achieve their career goals, as a condition of high school graduation, appears to be a concept which has evolved over the past two decades, and a good concept it is.  Heck, I don’t remember my old high school being involved in career planning, or for that matter, even having “career counselors” per se.  As students, we were pretty much on our own to figure it all out. Yes, many high schools have had career counselors for years, but not all schools are required to develop or follow a formalized career planning process.

For example, in the State of Washington, the State Board of Education established the “High School and Beyond Plan” back in 2000 and made it a graduation requirement. According to the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), “Starting in middle school, students work with their families and school staff to create their High School and Beyond Plan based on their own Personalized Pathway Requirement. They continue to revise their plan each year throughout high school as their interests or goals change.”

Similarly, in the State of Michigan, legislation regarding career preparation which had originated years earlier continued to evolve. Most recently, in September of 2014, the Michigan Department of Education sent a memorandum to the superintendents of all school districts which stated in part, “Public Act 141 of 2007, as amended by Public Act 209 of 2014, requires districts to provide students an opportunity to develop an Educational Development Plan (EDP).” As in Washington, students begin working on their career plans as early as middle school and then review and revise their plans as they progress through high school and head toward graduation.

In my opinion, these types of programs are best practices which will hopefully become a trend. I hope most students and their parents will recognize such programs as being genuinely beneficial to entering the “real world” of life after high school. Unfortunately, I am sure some will see the whole process as just another task with which they are burdened in order to graduate and receive that long-awaited diploma. However, those who do take a career exploration and planning process seriously will be helping to ensure themselves success in both their career and personal goals.

Of the presentations I witnessed, the aspect which stood out the most in my mind was how some students had already – and wisely – gone so far as to “job shadow” individuals in their chosen career fields, while others had not.

What is job shadowing? The term “job shadowing” can mean different things to different people, but as the term is used here, it refers to the practice of a student literally following around someone in a particular line of work to learn what the job is really like, at least as best one can in one or a few sessions. Sometimes, terms such as “day on the job” or similar names are used to describe essentially the same experience with the same end goal. The scary thing is that for those students who did not job shadow, in reality, they only really know about their career fields from a somewhat superficial, abstract, job description type of vantage point, one which provides relatively little depth or insight.

Consider your own experience. How many times has something “looked good on paper” or “sounded good in theory” but ended up being not at all what you had hoped for? Now, apply this same lesson to the pursuit of a career, an undertaking which typically requires significant time, money, and effort.

For example, I know an individual who is a gifted artist and he thought a career in architecture would be a natural way to put his artistic interest and skill set to work. Consequently, while in high school, he began exploring how to pursue a career in architecture. However, after a “day on the job” experience at an architectural firm, he concluded the field was not at all what he thought it would be, and decided on a completely different career path altogether. What if he had never had the “day on the job” experience? Without that early reality check, he may very well may have invested several years in college, spending time and money taking courses directed toward an architectural degree only to discover late in the process that this field was not for him or what he expected.

For another such example, I need not look too far. When I started college, I thought I had a definite career path goal in mind and began a college curriculum headed toward becoming a medical technologist. The program called for three years of college courses followed by a one-year, for-credit clinical internship in an accredited hospital program, after which I would receive my bachelor degree and be eligible to sit for the required registry and/or licensing examinations. Yup, I had it all figured out; plus, the idea of working in a laboratory seemed natural to me as I had always been very interested in science.

After my first year of college, I landed a summer (full-time) and winter (part-time) job as a student assistant in a hospital laboratory. This was great! I had the opportunity to not only earn some money, but to also both observe and actually perform some of the work which awaited me in my future career.

However, much to my shock and disappointment while working there during my second year of college, I discovered the medical technology field just did not have the appeal for me which I thought it would. It was obvious that much of my college work thus far was headed in the wrong direction. Fortunately for me, all was not lost. On the bright side, not only did I avoid a career mistake, my experience there did introduce me to an entirely different field and line of work which did interest me considerably more, and I was later able to steer my college coursework in that direction instead.

In retrospect, I have no doubt that if I had not had this “year on the job” experience I would have simply and blindly continued my college studies as originally planned, spending money and working hard toward a degree and career which was not for me.  I cannot help but wonder how many individuals have done exactly that, and suffered the resulting remorse.

Regardless of whether you are a high school student, college student, or working individual looking to change jobs or fields, take the time to examine that desired career up close and personal. Here are some suggestions:

  • If you are a high school student, when considering your career options, make sure you include a few job shadowing experiences. It is important to do this with several different companies or individuals, as anyone who has worked a few years can tell you, things can differ greatly from place to place and person to person. You would not want your perception of a career tainted by one sour individual or one lousy company.
  • While in college, if at all possible, get a summer or part-time job in the area of interest. Not only will you see the job up close, you will develop a network of individuals who may later serve as references or may even end up hiring you. Explore the availability of student internship opportunities. If the job continues to fuel your passion for the field, it will also give you the motivation to keep plugging away at your college courses.
  • If you are already working at a job but know you need to change jobs or even careers altogether, make sure you really know how green that grass is before taking the leap. Use a vacation day and create do your own day on the job with someone you know in the field. At a minimum, talk to several others in the field of interest. Some companies have internal job shadowing programs designed to help their employees advance into new areas; if your company has such a program, check it out.

Job shadowing cannot guarantee you will end up loving the career you are about to pursue; however, by now you probably already know all too well that nobody gets any guarantees in life. Therefore, it is critical to base your career decisions on the best information available, and job shadowing is one way to help get some of that information.


Featured image courtesy of fodt-flickr

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