The Shadow Knows Mercy Medical Center Staff Mentors Students Exploring Career Options

Visitors to Mercy Medical Center this month might see some very young looking doctors patrolling the halls in scrubs, examining an X-ray, or reviewing a new hospital ad campaign.

An influx of teenage geniuses?

Not quite, although the new recruits undoubtedly show promise. In February, Mercy will welcome high school students from across the region to participate in a national career preparation program dubbed Groundhog Job Shadow Day, a kickoff for a year-long initiative that pairs students with workplace mentors in a variety of industries.

The program, which began in 1996 in Boston, was the first initiative spearheaded by the National Job Shadow Coalition, formed to encourage participation in job- shadowing initiatives across the country. This year, the national event will be held on Feb. 2, coinciding with the day that Punxsutawney Phil emerges to weigh in on the balance of winter.

Groundhog Job Shadow Day was introduced to Mercy by Colleen Condon, director of Volunteer Services for the hospital, who explained that a college intern working in the Volunteer Services office last summer stumbled on the Groundhog Job Shadow Day Web site while searching for program ideas.

She brought the information to Condon, who saw an opportunity to cultivate a new career-development project at Mercy, geared toward teenagers.

“Career exploration at the teen level is very important,” said Condon, a former career counselor. “In my former job, people were constantly saying things to me like, ‘I wish I had known about this field years ago.’

“If you can introduce career options to teenagers early on,” she continued, “you can open up a whole new set of options that they otherwise may not have ever heard about.”

Early Indications

To that end, Condon has recruited several physicians, nurses, technicians, and administrators at Mercy to serve as mentors to high school students from across Western Mass. for one day. The staff will spend the day walking students through the daily activities involved with different careers, as well as the education necessary to secure certain jobs, and how those positions are changing.

Hailing from seven area high schools – Minnechaug in Wilbraham, Chicopee, Chicopee Comprehensive, Granby, Holyoke, Westfield, and Commerce in Springfield – 47 students will arrive at Mercy Medical Center on Groundhog Day and pair up with their mentors for the day.

Some will pair with physicians, while others will work with nutritionists, pharmacists, graphic artists, public relations specialists, or perinatologists, to name a few.

“Among the physicians’ specialties, most students expressed interest in pediatrics or obstetrics,” Condon explained. “That’s pretty common among high-school students interested in medical careers … for many of them, pediatrics are of interest because they haven’t been exposed to very many other disciplines yet.”

And because the demand was too great to pair every student interested in pediatrics with a pediatrician, some students have agreed to explore other specialties, and Condon hopes that will introduce them to areas they might not have previously considered.

“It might even change their mind,” she said.

Condon added that several technology-based careers also garnered considerable interest from the students, including respiratory therapy and ultrasound, EKG, CT scan, and X-ray technology.

“Interest in the technology-based jobs is very great,” she said, “and it’s encouraging to see teenagers interested in those types of jobs so early. It gives us a chance to expose them to more information about those careers, including the schooling required … many ultrasound schools, for instance, are incredibly competitive now because of the demand.”

And one of the most encouraging signs, Condon said, was the area in which the most students expressed interest in learning more: nursing.

“We are very pleased to see that,” she said, “and the nursing staff here is thrilled.”

Rapid Response

In fact, Condon said the overall response to the program was overwhelming. Roughly 70 students actually applied, and several outstanding candidates had to be turned down.

“We had such an amazing response and we hated to say ‘no’ to anyone,” she said, “but there just weren’t enough employees to go around to satisfy the interest.”

Condon said she chose to offer the shadowing opportunities primarily to juniors and seniors, who are thinking more seriously about their career options. However, a handful of sophomores will also be participating, and she added that different topics regarding career preparation will be covered with the students, appropriate to their grade level.

“There will be a wrap-up session for all of the students at the end of their day,” she explained, “at which we’ll provide each student with a ‘map’ to help guide them through the steps necessary to prepare for the career they’re interested in. With the juniors and seniors, we’ll focus on what types of higher education they’ll need, and how competitive various programs in health care can be. For the sophomores, we’ll look more closely at the courses they should be taking in the next two years to better prepare them for college.”

And Mercy employees across a wide spectrum have pledged their support and involvement of the project, including Chief Financial Officer Dr. James Fanale and Vice President of Patient Services Dr. John Kasper, who will talk to the students about the ins and outs of running a hospital.

Gwen Bynoe of Mercy’s Human Resources department will also speak to the students about what administrators are looking for in a hospital employee, as well as some of the benefits of working in a medical environment, and Condon will tackle HIPAA and confidentiality requirements, and how they have changed nearly every health care-related career.

Recovery Time

Condon said the information sessions as well as the time the students will spend shadowing Mercy employees will give them a snapshot of a number of career opportunities in health care, but she added that the hospitals employees are already expressing excitement about the program from their own perspectives.

“I think this is really rejuvenating the staff in terms of their jobs,” she said. “They’re getting ready to field the questions they anticipate from the students, and remembering what it was that got them excited about their field in the first place. In addition, they see the importance of catching these students early and teaching them more about jobs in health care … it’s an important step in addressing shortages in a specialized field. I think this will have a positive effect in many aspects.”

Indeed, even if Punxsutawney Phil predicts six more weeks of winter, the students shadowing health care jobs at Mercy will have seen their shadows – and also learned from them.