Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Gaps Years for Everyone - Part 2

My last blog post hopefully quelled some of your assumptions regarding who can take a gap year and what are some of the common motivators for mature professionals to make an adventure out of some extended time away from the office.  This second part will address the logistics of taking a gap year, how to go about it and the affects it may or may not have on your career, finances and professional development.  Because let’s face it, as much as we may all want to take a few months off and get out of this “rut” of a career we are in, there are certain obstacles, (your boss and those pesky bills that show up in the mail every month) that we are going to have to face first.

How It Will Affect My Career?
Many people worry that a gap year will affect their professional career advancement and goals.  Employers might not understand an employee disappearing for 6 to 12 months.  After all, if they didn’t want you around in the foreseeable future, they’ll just fire you and hire a replacement, right?  Younger generations tend not to be as worried about this as many assume they will have plenty of time to make up for the loss of momentum.  Plus, chances are they are not as committed to their entry level, minimum salary jobs at this point either.

If you are truly worried about marginalizing your career prospects by taking the time off, keep in mind that fast tracking your career should not be the main goal or focus of the program.  Taking a gap year is comparable to taking the scenic route through the countryside even though all the main roads for the first time in recorded history are not under construction.  The purpose of a gap year is to take a step back and examine the path currently being taken.  Time away should be self-fulfilling. 

However that is not to say that a gap year cannot have professional benefits.  Depending on the itinerary and your resilience to succumbing to the idea of spending an entire year laying on a beach somewhere in Australia (the 3 feet of snow outside my window makes that idea difficult to resist), time away can be used to equip one’s self with new experiences and skills that complement a formal education and workplace experience.  Internships are a popular gap year activity and if you land the right internship position, it can definitely add some “wow” factor to your resume and provide you with a host of international networking opportunities that you never would have encountered.

Before you decide to take a break, here are the things you may need to negotiate with your employer because chances are your employer is reluctant to give you your vacation days let alone a few months off.  You need to be prepared to make some sacrifices and not all employers are going to react the same way to the idea of you taking an extended leave.
·         What will my employment rights be while on the break?
·         Will my job be guaranteed upon my return?
·         How much responsibility will I have in putting replacement mechanisms in place?
·         Can I do some work experience while on break?
·         Can I take part in training courses or undertake assignments?
·         What contact can I have with my employer in order to keep in touch with changes at work?
·         When do I need to return to work?
·         What other benefits can I keep (e.g. health, club memberships)?

Before approaching your employer, however, you need to think about a few things in order to establish your value.  If you are relatively new at your workplace, it is going to be more difficult to sway opinion in your favour than if you have been at the same company for over a decade and have proven yourself a valuable asset to the team.  Basically, you need to figure out what your employer thinks you are worth and how much they are willing to concede in order to keep you happy, productive and with the firm.  Here are a few points that you should consider:
·         Your real value to your employer, i.e., how much has your employer invested in your recruitment, training and development?
·         The skills shortages in your profession or area of work
·         Your employer’s future developments and planned growth
·         What costs will your employer incur in replacing your skills, experience and knowledge?
·         The value of your requested employment break to improving employee relations, recruitment, and retention and public image

Financial Implications
People don’t like to talk about the dirty “m-word” but “money” is the single most difficult obstacle that people face when deciding to take a gap year and I am talking corn maze in the middle of a Saskatchewan corn field difficult obstacle kind of thing.  You are going to need a plan before heading in and it have better be a good one or else you it’s going to be over before you even get started.

Usually taking a gap year implies that one will not be drawing their typical salary.  Chances are there will still be bills to pay during this year off such as a mortgage, rent, insurance, utilities, etc.  Combine with the cost of actually travelling abroad and looking for accommodations in your destination, it can be daunting. 

Consider the following options that can be used to save money prior to departure and while completing your gap year:
·         Cancel all unnecessary services such as gym memberships and magazine subscriptions in order to save and suspend cable, phone and internet while travelling
·         Consider selling a valuable asset such as an antique or painting that has little sentimental value
·         If travelling abroad, rent your house out or sublet your apartment to perhaps another international gap year traveller for the extent of your travels
·         Ask friends, family and associated organizations for sponsorship funds or host a raffle
·         Find a program that will allow you to work while travelling abroad in exchange for a monthly stipend of spending money or perhaps an internship opportunity that will provide you with accommodations and a meal plan over the course of your stay
·         Homestays are a good way to reduce the cost of living abroad; it involves living with a family in your desired destination often in exchange for rent or perhaps childcare assistance

Housing is perhaps the biggest expense you will encounter while travelling.  It usually accounts for the largest portion of your income and without your typical salary, continuing to pay your mortgage or rent is often difficult.  Add to that the fact that you will also need to pay for housing wherever in the world you end up.  There are cost saving measures available however because you are not the first person to attempt a gap year and there are thousands of others out there offering to help circumvent the accommodation issue so you can still participate and not be stressed financially.

Renting Your Property Out – Assuming that you own a house, you could rent it out either independently or through a rental agency as it will provide you with a way to continue to pay your mortgage and bills while travelling.

House Swapping – Swapping houses and even your car with an individual or couple in the city you wish to visit has the benefit of paying your mortgage, not having to leave your property empty, and sets you in a neighbourhood versus in the middle of tourist country.  Many people who are uncomfortable with straight up renting their house out are more comfortable with this option because they know that just as they must trust their swap partner to care for their house, so must the swap partner trust them to care for their home.

Leaving Your Property Empty – If renting or swapping are not options you are thrilled about, you could leave your property empty.  This will be expensive but you can cut the cost by cancelling or suspending all unnecessary services and get a friend to check in every so often, collect mail and tend to the exterior (mow lawn, shovel snow, etc) to give the impression that the house is not vacant.

Staying in Private Homes – A homestay situation is possible if you do not apply for a swap situation but are willing to consider living with another family abroad which is often cheaper than other rental options.  Staying with a family also has the benefits of allowing you to better connect with the local culture and learn the language if applicable as you will be faced with daily family interactions.

Combining Travel & Work
If finances are still an issue for you at this point, another option would be to combine your gap year with a working abroad program.  This type of situation would definitely add to your resume though if you make arrangements with your current employer to remain with their company, you might have to check in to see what rights you have to work for someone else at the same time. 

Working abroad while you travel is a popular choice among mature professionals.  And why not?  If you are a journalist in Canada, why can’t you travel and continue working as a journalist in Cuba?  By setting up a temporary home and work situation abroad, you will be able to make new friends, learn another language, and experience the true culture and how other people live much more thoroughly than any average tourist.  And as mentioned above, working abroad while travelling also allows one to supplement the cost of travelling and bridge the financial leap that is often taken with a gap year.  And finally, it can look great on a resume as it shows initiative and international awareness which is much easier to justify to employers than a six month vacation.  Working provides the added benefit of being able to pick up the local language with greater ease.  I know after six years of French class I am still hopeless when it comes to carrying on a basic conversation but after three weeks working at a summer camp in Quebec, my friend was just about fluent.

Be prepared to overcome certain hurdles when working abroad as it will undoubtedly require gaining specific visas and permissions from foreign ministries specifically in the United States and Australia.  Teaching English is always a popular choice and in many countries it requires no additional education or certification to become an ESL instructor.  In fact, Thailand is offering paid teaching positions to English speaking travellers; covering travel expenses, providing housing, meals and other necessities. Cuba allows you to teach English with unpaid internships as well, while still benefitting from all the other perks of working abroad.

Tourism jobs are also a good idea as the travel and tourism industry employs over 78 million people and English is often a sought after skill.

When it comes right down to it, yes, it is going to be a challenge to sort out all the details and make arrangements for your gap year and it is going to potentially affect your career and pocket book.  But those cons don’t outweigh the pros of what you will receive through taking some time to get perspective on your life or even rejuvenate your routine.  And when the alternative might be suffering from burnout, going crazy, pulling out your hair and dreading your cubical (which is essentially the same thing as a padded cell but with fewer pillows), it might be worth it.  The other option is quitting your current job but I personally think that travelling the world sounds more fun than revamping my resume.

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