High school or college students (or anyone new to the job market, really) can gain a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge from “job shadowing” someone, even if it’s just for a single day.
Job shadowing entails following a professional for a specified amount of time to get a sense of what a particular position involves. Though it may seem trivial at first glance, a wise student — or one who has read this article — will benefit immensely from on-the-job learning when it comes time to apply for internships or jobs. Here’s how to make the most of the experience:
1. Watch things go wrong, or right.
Some of the most constructive job-shadowing days are ones in which you witness something break or go wrong. These are the moments when you get to see how people perform under stress, how they solve problems, and which types of leadership structures are best suited to dealing with emergencies. Pay attention to how the chain of command works when something goes awry.
For example, in a tech company, a manager might ask members of the engineering, development, programming, and product teams to identify a problem and fix it, while telling client-facing employees to see whether they can delay a product launch by a few weeks.
A takeaway lesson for everybody witnessing this situation is that these teams should have been interacting on a regular basis, and perhaps implementing progress reports. Also, buffer time should have been included in the timeline to allow for unexpected emergencies.
But even in the event that something hasn’t gone wrong, try to pay attention to the practices in place that keep things running smoothly: do teams seem to communicate well internally? How about with other teams? Ask the person you’re shadowing these two questions: what is the company doing well and where is there room for improvement? Since this is a low-stakes conversation, she may be more candid with you than she is with her colleagues.
2. Learn how to answer situational questions.
Your future job interviews may include situational questions about what you would do in case something specific happens. Great answers come from experience, though that doesn’t mean you have to have been the one to experience something — maybe you simply saw it unfold.
Take the scenario outlined in the previous section. If an interviewer asks what you would do in a similar situation, your confident response might be: “Assuming progress reports and test runs weren’t already implemented to catch this problem ahead of time, we would need to buy time for the tech team to fix the bug.”
You might then explain the ways in which the sales or customer service team would have to interact with clients to explain to them why they need additional time. Or you might propose that those tech teams work on adding a simple but specific feature as an added bonus that might help placate the client.
Such incisive answers may cause the interviewers’ jaws to drop. How is it that a high school or college student can give such an astute answer? Because the student witnessed something like this during her shadow day and took the time to think about how to solve the problem, and how to prevent similar ones from occurring in the future.
3. Understand how things work.
Pay attention to who reports to whom, how often, and why. Does this model of command seem to be working well, or is it tangled in bureaucracy — a waste of effort? Is it too firm, too flexible, or malleable enough to be adapted to different situations? Do most employees seem to be enjoying their work? Do people generally feel appreciated by their managers? Is there a general culture of resentment, or one of collegial support?
Paying attention to these things will prepare you for situations in which you may find yourself in the future. The limited amount of time during a shadow day may prevent you from observing all or most of the situations discussed here, but knowing what to look for will allow you to more quickly recognize them if they arise.
While you may not be allowed to sit in on closed meetings, there are other places and times when you can learn valuable information about the workplace or industry. Coffee rooms, lunch rooms, copy machines, and water coolers are places where employees run into each other and chat. These are places where they will discuss, laugh about, and complain about their work and the company. If you can, listen in on these conversations or join them. You might get great advice or perspective from someone.
Opportunities to overhear such conversations will vary from workplace to workplace. If you are required to follow someone around at all times, then that may limit your chances of encountering such a situation. These conversations need to arise naturally, so don’t feel disappointed if you don’t encounter everything that is discussed in this section.
4. Ask insightful questions to gain knowledge.
Asking good questions is a great way to leave a positive impression. Here are a few examples of what you might ask the person you are shadowing: Knowing what you do now, what would you have changed about your education and training if you could do things over again? Knowing what you do about industry trends, what type of classes or training would you suggest that I take or do? How well do you think your college education prepared you to do this type of work? Is there anything outside of schooling that you would recommend that I do to better prepare myself for a career like yours? Were there situations in the past that required this company or department to change its operating procedures? What were they?
5. Learn the lingo to use on your résumé.
An effective way of learning appropriate lingo (technical terms or industry jargon) is to ask the person you are shadowing to write a short description of her job, just as she would on her resume. Tell her that this is an exercise to help you learn industry lingo and encourage her to use such language in her blurb. Make sure to ask her to explain what specific terms mean.
For example, what does “pipeline” mean? Or “quality assurance” and “quality control”? What does “product” mean in the context of this company? This knowledge will be useful to you in the future, whether you’re applying for internships or jobs. It will also help improve your ability to communicate in that particular industry, which showcases your competency and quality. Not all industries or types of work have an extensive list of lingo, but most do.
6. Get a foot in the door.
If you left a positive impression on your shadow day, the company may be more inclined to take you on for an extended internship in the future. Or, someone at the company may be a great reference for your applications to internships at other companies. It makes a big difference if someone knows you and can vouch for you among the many resumes that flood in. Make sure to follow up your job-shadowing day by writing a thank you email or letter.
For tips on how to prepare your resume for applications to shadow days and internships, see my article: The Art of Writing Resumes: How Long Does It Take To Burn a Sheet of Paper?.