Mind the career gap


This is an article by Laura Smith.
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It’s not surprising to discover that more graduates are finding the view of a South East Asian beach more appealing than the one from their office desk. But with a new trend in young people giving up work for travel it raises the question: are they ruining their careers, or taking a break at a sensible time?

Laura on a road trip across America

The travelling bug normally hits students the hardest before they start university, while others see the long summer holidays during their degrees as the perfect opportunity for a spot of globe trekking. More and more, however, graduates are finding themselves booking those once-in-a-lifetime flights once they’ve already begun establishing a career.

As it does with almost everything these days, the economy has its part to play in the reasons for this. The last time I went travelling in 2009, the recession was in full swing and many of the people I met during my trip claimed that redundancy (and the payout that came with it) was what motivated their trip. With no other job prospects to turn to, exploring the world seemed a better option that sitting at home, checking ever-shrinking job listings each day.

This is one way of meeting the financial costs of travelling. If a redundancy package isn’t what will fund your trip however, it’s more likely that a long period of strict saving will be the secret to your backpacking adventure. I saved the money from every part time job, birthday and Christmas for a few years before setting off on a road trip across the United States. Working while abroad wasn’t for me; I wanted to experience as many destinations as possible during my trip, and fitting in a job tied to one area wasn’t going to work.

The finances do depend on the type of trip you’re planning however; a few months of rapid moving around will take a lump sum to fund it, while a longer trip to a concentrated area, such as the ever-popular Australia could be easier to fit in with some casual work, though a friend of mine did revert back to the first of these options after a few days of working on a farm and discovering the existence of jumping spiders (the name, teamed with the size of an Australian spider, is fairly self-explanatory I feel).

Going solo

As well as dumping the career to pick up the backpack, another trend I am noticing is the rise in solo travellers. This is often the easiest option: travelling alone means you have total control over the destinations you visit and for how long, without giving in to someone else’s itinerary. A sudden redundancy notice can also leave you in a different position to working friends who don’t have the indefinite time to commit to a life-changing trip, though having someone to share your experiences with and provide support in difficult situations is worth some compromises.

Many graduates will recognise the opportunities that diving into something new presents from when they moved to a new city for university. This is one of the best aspects of travelling: putting yourself out of your comfort zone forces you to meet people quickly! Whether it’s locals in the area you’re visiting, or other travellers who may have established a good feel of the area, meeting new people abroad is the best way to explore a country, and my personal favourite part of travelling. While in the US I discovered Couch Surfing (www.couchsurfing.org), an organisation that allows travellers to stay with locals for free. Doing this meant I got a personal guide of the area as well as plenty of sight-seeing recommendations the main guidebooks left out.

Travel bug or homesickness?

Meeting people from the same country as yourself often helps to alleviate any homesickness you may be experiencing, especially in parts of the world that have offered large culture shocks upon arrival.

Full Moon parties in Thailand are fast becoming known for their western dominance. However, many ‘hardcore travellers’ are now describing it as ‘too English’ to visit for a true cultural experience, likening it to the beaches of Ibiza and Malia, full English breakfasts included.

This leads to the big question of the backpacking trend: is it independent travel or a new variant on the package holiday?

Of course, the details of this largely come down to whether you researched your trip using a Thomas Cook brochure or the advice of a local fruit seller you ended up talking all night to, sat outside a beach hut. Only one of these options will leave you sitting at the edge of a chlorine-filled swimming pool, brimming with dive-bombing children and 18-30 members, surrounded by mass-produced lounge furniture and tower block-style hotels.

Travelling is ultimately a lifestyle, and it’s difficult to lose the bug once you’ve caught it, whereas holiday-makers are often the more settled type, preferring a fortnight-long holiday with a clear return date attached.

But this is where the problem lies: are graduates who are leaving their careers behind simply individuals incapable of unpacking their belongings into something bigger than what they can carry on their back? Never going travelling again in favour of a career can be hard to accept, and this is often the fear many people have. Who can expect their employer to allow indefinite leave every time they feel the need for a break?

Beach or mountains: what's your dream?

It’s a hard scenario to comprehend, and one which few employers will understan if you’re lucky enough to have a secure position in an unstable economy, but sometimes the timing may be dependent on you rather than the job market. Perhaps you are the type able to plan years ahead, and in this plan you see a move in your career, location or company. Instances like these provide ample opportunity to leave the working world behind for a while and return to a fresh start.

For Caroline Gibson, travelling was always part of her plan for life after university and Cow PR opening new offices in the north offered an ideal solution to her need for a short term contract:

“I already had a year’s PR experience before finishing university from my placement year and I was lucky enough to be asked back by the same company to help open a northern office. They had already spoken to me about returning to London which I said I was unable to do as I was saving to go travelling, however when they got in touch with me about the northern office it was ideal. I could stay in Leeds, do something really exciting, get some great experience and they already knew I would be leaving in a years and a half’s time”.

Not everyone will have the same luck in this respect, and will have to take a leap of faith in leaving their job to travel. However, you should never assume your employer won’t be happy with your plans and that giving up work is your only option.

David Sutherland approached his bosses with a suggestion that worked for them both:

“The company I work for has its quiet time during the summer months and they wanted to save money wherever possible during the economic downturn. Allowing me a few months off while the work-load was low meant they saved paying me a salary for a while and I was able to return to work as things picked up again later in the year”.

Finding yourself settling into a career after university can often cause the unexpected alarm bells that tell you that now is the time to do something different. A PR exec with two or three years experience may find returning to work easier than someone further into their career looking for a specific management role – so getting out before you get too involved is the slightly pessimistic way of looking at it. The way Caroline Gibson sees it is that travelling can be an advantage for your career:

“Nothing has been set in stone for my return, I don’t have a guaranteed job to go back to but I have some fantastic experience on my CV and travelling has made me more focussed on the future. I wouldn’t change what I am doing for the world and it has even made me tempted to come and work abroad for a year in a PR agency – so who knows what will happen when I return”.

Asking for advice

Whatever view you have, asking the advice of others is always the key thing to do. Advice from some may have a philosophical edge, “It’s now or never, don’t think about it, just go for it”, but I’ll conclude with a few practical tips for planning a journey:

  • Work out a budget, and add 50%. This may prevent you running out of cash too early or allow you to relax a little more when it comes to spending; finding a hostel which has suddenly put its prices up a significant amount due to a busy weekend will seem much less stressful if you’re not worrying about money.
  • Take a pay-as-you-go mobile phone and buy a local sim card for the country you’re in. You may not need to use it much, but when you’re stuck in a bus station at 3am and need to get hold of your accommodation you’ll be thankful for it. If you can afford to take a small laptop or netbook too this will save you an incredible amount on Internet café charges ($3 per hour every day adds up when you’re constantly booking accommodation).
  • Buy a travel towel. They fold up unimaginably small and dry amazingly fast. It’s a must. Concentrated washing detergent you can use in a sink is also unexplainably helpful.
  • Most of all, have fun! Don’t spend your trip worrying about unemployment – there’s always more travelling to fill a recruitment gap and you’ll have plenty to talk about when those interviews start lining up again.

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