Job Shadowing: Career Exploring at Work

By Lozada, Marlene | Techniques, November/December 2001 | Go to article overview

Job Shadowing: Career Exploring at Work


Lozada, Marlene, Techniques


Job shadowing is a "best practice" when it comes to work-based learning activities for young people, experts say, but its success is contingent on careful planning and effective follow up.

What would make a young person, who lives nowhere near the ocean and who doesn't like studying science subjects, want to be a marine biologist?

A lack of valuable career exploration activities, says Sterling van der Spuy. Van der Spuy is the communications/ youth services coordinator for Education Edge, the school-to-careers initiative in Tennessee. He was also an uninformed, but aspiring marine biologist as a teenager, who much later discovered that communications was his career calling.

Now as part of his job, van der Spuy facilitates job shadowing efforts throughout Tennessee's 138 school districts, helping teachers, parents, students and businesses with what he says is one of several effective work-based learning activities for young people. Education Edge began implementing a statewide job shadowing program for grades 8-12 in 1998, when about 7,500 students participated. That number has since swelled to nearly 20,000, with more than 7,000 businesses opening their doors to students. "The kids come back with a whole new perspective on the value of school," van der Spuy says. "It's a great way to get kids into the workplace."

Typically, a job shadowing activity pairs a middle or high school student with an employee-often called a mentor-at the employee's workplace. The two spend a day together at the business, where the student can observe firsthand what it's like to be an accountant at a busy firm, for example, or a licensed practical nurse at a retirement home. Students can see for themselves how the skills they are learning in school are applied to a career and ask their mentors specific questions about their jobs. They can also observe 'soft skills/ such as customer service, teamwork and professionalism in the workplace. Many school districts introduce job shadowing at the middle school level-when students are beginning to do more in-depth career explorationand then follow-up with another job shadow and other work-based learning activities throughout high school.

"I would say 11, 12, 13 are good ages to start job shadowing," says Richard Lynch, professor of occupational studies at the University of Georgia's School of Leadership and Lifelong Learning in Athens. Lynch recently completed the comprehensive study "New Directions for High School Career and Technical Education in the 21st Century," for the U.S. Department of Education. Job shadowing is "an extraordinarily ageappropriate activity" to introduce to middle school students, Lynch says. "It's very well grounded in developmental psychology. This is when kids are hungry for information related to `Who am IT and `How does that play out as I'm beginning this road to adulthood?' It really exposes the kids to the adult world. It gives them a vision for the roles they might aspire to play in the workplace."

But successful job shadowing programs require planning and organization, Lynch stresses; and van der Spuy and others involved in facilitating these activities agree: Job shadowing should not resemble a field trip. Schools need a well-organized plan before sending their students out into the real world, even if it's just for one day.

Set goals, Be Flexible

School districts throughout the country are running successful job shadowing programs uniquely, each tailoring programs to meet their needs and objectives and the overall goals of their school-to-careers initiatives. Flexibility is key to getting a program off on the right foot, says van der Spuy. "Each school has its own way of doing it. Schools have either made job shadowing part of a class or they've made it occur during a certain part of the year. When you come up with a model program, you don't tell the schools, `Follow this model.' That's not asking them to be innovative.

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