Helping students cast a long ‘shadow’ on job market

Although some students rely on ‘best guesses’ concerning choices of study at university, research indicates many select academics based on interests and skill sets. Interest, however, is related to experience and exposure.

But what if you’re lacking both?

Students limited in their exposure to the world – or experiences within it – are making decisions about their studies and potential careers based on preconceived notions and stereotypes.

Sarah Dawson, Western Social Science’s career counselor, has studied research in career development and remains passionate about the advantages of the Job Shadow Program.

“We help students identify things to begin their career exploration,” she explains. “It’s mostly about understanding and knowing yourself so that you can make good decisions in order to be successful. Being successful means being prepared, so you have to learn what it’s going to take, what you need to do in order to prepare for the professional world.”

Early in 2006, on the second floor of the Social Science Centre, Dawson spearheaded the program with a simple cardboard sign. She advertised resume and cover letter assistance.

“We had lots of bites, lots of interest with students wanting to know: What can I do with my degree?” she says.

Over the past five years, Social Science Career Services has grown into a valuable resource by opening doors, offering experiences, advice and exposure into many different professional worlds.

“By spending time with employers,” Dawson says, “students have an opportunity to hear the real story. I think that face time is hugely valuable in terms of broadening their perspectives, helping them understand possibilities, helping them understand what needs to happen in order to be successful and testing out their knowledge.”

Businesses in manufacturing, sports, law, medicine and entertainment, for example, have joined Western to showcase their professions. Some students may shadow for a day, multiple days or just for a morning.

“It will really depend on the nature of the work,” Dawson says. “We keep it very flexible for the employer.”

In addition to students learning first-hand details about a career, Dawson says job shadowing is a way for employers to get fresh ideas – to sample young talent and develop a relationship with Western. “Employers don’t always have a job offer,” she says, “but they want to engage with students. They want to get involved. They want to give back somehow.”

This could be the first time a student steps into a professional working environment. Therefore, there are strict rules concerning participation in a preparatory session.

“We coach the students on professionalism, how to ask good questions and on the processes and procedures of communicating with an employer,” Dawson explains. If students don’t attend, they cannot participate in the program. “There’s never an exception to that. Ever.”

Third-year Social Science student Alyssa Kilby, who is majoring in criminology, spent the day with the Middlesex O.P.P. Her experience confirmed her career interests in law enforcement, particularly in the Forensic Unit. Kilby says the Job Shadow Program allowed her to network with individuals in the field and assisted in learning about educational backgrounds.

Dawson strongly believes studying successfully at university doesn’t guarantee anyone a job.

“You are going to get yourself a job,” she says. “You have to know yourself and really understand what you bring to the table.”

As important as promotional materials are, she advises students cover letters and resumes shouldn’t be relied upon as their only source of marketing. “Students need to have face-time with employers to hear about what’s going on in the field and be able to pitch themselves in a way to make a strong connection,” she says. “I think that one of the lessons I teach students is to actually pick up the phone and dial it.”

Whether in first year or fourth, students take advantage of the Job Shadow Program to help focus on what they need to do while at Western. A student can come to Career Services during the week and within a two hour time frame, without an appointment, ask questions and receive help on the spot.

Dawson says showcasing oneself is what matters, then taking action.

“It’s planned happenstance,” she says. “It’s about talking to people who do interesting work and then being smart enough to do something about it.”