The shadow of your future career

Work shadowing seeks to condense the benefits of work experience into a shorter, more manageable dose.

Technology likes miniaturisation. Mobile phone as big as a brick? Wait a couple of decades and it's the size of a playing card. Like keeping in touch? Don't write pages of letters: tweet in 140 characters (or less). The same trend for reduction has arrived in work experience. Although industrial placements lasting a year or more do exist, another form of work experience seeks to condense the benefits into a shorter, more manageable dose: is work shadowing the future?

“Work shadowing is sometimes thought of as just following people around, but it’s more than that,” explains Rachel Wood-Harper, quality advisor at the National Council for Work Experience. “There’s a big difference between work shadowing and work experience. A work experience placement would be more about offering the student a specific project that they could do, whereas work shadowing is a lot shorter and it’s going to be more about observing one person to see what sort of things they do on a day-to-day basis. On that level it has a lot of benefits. It’s a chance to see how the real world works as opposed to just the theory. It gives you contacts and it’s hands-on without you having to take ownership of actual work, so it can definitely be a good way of getting a job.”

Owen Woods, who is studying engineering at the University of Cambridge, spent a week shadowing at the engineering consultancy firm Faber Maunsell and found that the experience opened up a range of possibilities. “For me, work shadowing was incredibly useful, and I think that my feeling is if you can arrange it as early as possible in your career that’s better, because you might well find out information that changes your mind about the job. For me, the surprising thing was that for consultancy work there was actually very little engineering involved and not much maths, and that did make me think about my career and what I wanted to do. Another thing I found was that once I was inside the company everyone was very keen that I got the most out of the experience and they were all very honest with me and [answered] any questions that I had.”

Leaving engineering aside, Woods feels that work shadowing gives students a head-start in switching to working life. “Basically, I would say, don’t worry too much about what the actual shadow is, as lots of people seem to worry about getting the perfect person to shadow, but any experience of going into a company and seeing how they actually run and what a job entails is always going to be very useful. An awful lot of it is about getting experience of work in general. It’s something more fundamental. For instance, the company I was work shadowing at was very, very big, so I had to deal with the human resources people, the health and safety team and those kind of experiences are transferable across all disciplines and companies.”

One nice thing about work shadowing is that, as it is often arranged between individuals - one student and one person within a particular company - the details of how the shadow will work are often flexible. Whilst one shadow may be just one day of watching a particular person at work, for others it may be more hands-on. After hearing about engineering during a maths class at school George Moore arranged a day’s work shadowing with Pilot Drilling Control. “During the day I came in, got some overalls and went around the workshop and met some of the guys who were working at the company. It was a lot easier to imagine what the job was like by seeing it rather than being told by a careers adviser. Then in the afternoon I did some assembly work. I went to another workshop and started putting few parts together, which was pretty cool.”

It’s perhaps telling that both Woods and Moore ended up working at the companies they shadowed, exemplifying the benefits - providing you work quickly, shadowing can give you the same advantages as work experience in a fraction of the time.

Even if you’re only in the firm for one day, the chances are you will have several appointments where you can make an impression on people, and establish who you might need to contact if you decide you’d like to work for them. Firms are always more likely to hire people they know and even one day gives you a chance to join that approved list and put you ahead of the game when it comes to later applications. “After I’d done my work shadowing I applied for a deferred entry to university,” says Woods. “I was looking for a period of six months work and so I just asked the firm if I could come back and work for them for part of my gap year and they were great, they said yes of course and that was it! That was very convenient and I think if I hadn’t been there before then that wouldn’t have been an option, so it definitely opened a door for me there.”

Of course, you can approach anyone. But Harper-Wood says you need to know what an employer can get out of the deal for you to sell the process. “The first thing is that you may need to explain what it is to an employer - emphasise that it only needs to be a day or half a day. You should also be able to explain to an employer that it has benefits for them - it’s a way of educating the future workforce, from their perspective they’re giving something back, promoting their industry and possibly meeting future employees.”

Finding someone to shadow  is often a case of simply knocking on doors (or the electronic equivalent thereof) and asking politely. Alternatively, if you’ve already mastered networking then you can use your contacts. If you don’t have any contacts, speak to your university’s alumni office and careers advice service and ask if they can put you in touch with anyone. You could also ask members of the IET.

“Use your contacts,” says Harper-Wood. “This is the best starting point, if you know someone working in the industry where you’d like to carry out a work shadowing role then definitely get in touch with them. Be proactive and ask family and friends if they know anyone and then make a polite approach with a letter and your CV.”

Both Moore and Woods believe there are real benefits to the process. Moore is now doing an apprenticeship with Pilot Drilling Control in Suffolk and progressing towards his NVQ in operations and maintenance engineering and ultimately his degree. “I definitely think work shadowing is good because you actually get to see what people are doing, rather than just imagining it. It also gave me some great information about career progression and what changes are going on. It was a really quick insight into an actual workplace and from that day I could say that I really would like to get into a firm like that,” says Moore.

For Woods too, doing a work shadow has converted him. “When I graduate I would certainly consider doing more work shadowing as a way of getting a foot in the door at a company, it’s proven to be a very worthwhile thing for me to do.”

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