Vocational Education

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The practice known as job shadowing gives children "a dose of reality," says Keith Faulkner, the career-development coordinator at Albemarle Road Middle School in Charlotte, N.C. Twenty-two students at the 1,050-student school recently swallowed half-day doses of reality shadowing employees of the telecommunications company BellSouth as they went about their jobs.

Eleven hundred students from junior highs and middle schools in nine Southeastern states took part in the program earlier this month, company officials say. The schools chose the students, and each student selected a mentor from lists of volunteers at nearby BellSouth offices.

Youngsters nosed into office cubicles and sat elbow to elbow with their mentors as the employees checked e-mail and took phone calls. The students and workers ate pizza together in the corporate dining rooms.

But mostly the shadows and mentors chatted--about the tasks, pressures, and rewards of the workplace and the utility of academic skills.

Mr. Faulkner said a parent told him afterward that her son was captivated by a strategy meeting at which officials discussed competitive and regulatory pressures. Other students were struck by the degree to which employees used computers.

"They'd like to go back tomorrow," Mr. Faulkner said.

Anna Hampton, a BellSouth labor-relations manager in Charlotte and a participating mentor, said she was surprised to find common ground with Carmen, an Albemarle 8th grader. "She's a mediator at her school. I also handle mediation," she said.

Ms. Hampton, who also oversees employee discipline and contract interpretation, told Carmen her job was sometimes fun but often difficult. "I told her about how I feel when I have to give a supervisor the OK to let somebody go," she said.

Ms. Hampton said she needed to be able to write persuasive letters and reports, to train others, and to use math to calculate settlements.

Carmen, who left after lunch, wasn't there to see another part of working life: Her mentor had to work late to make up for the morning's lost productivity.

Susan Cooper, a senior human resources executive at the BellSouth Corp.'s Atlanta headquarters, said the job-shadowing exercise is meant to seed the labor pool of the region with technical and workplace skills that eventually would benefit the company.

"If we can help school systems train and educate their students, we don't have to do it when we hire the employees," she said.

--ANDREW TROTTER [email protected]

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