Why gap years are good for business

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The Independent Culture
The Government's snap decision to charge university tuition fees caused a wholesale cancellation of gap-year plans by students anxious to secure the last fee-free college places. But, as Robert Verkaik reports, going directly from school to university to job deprives employers

of well-rounded

junior employees.

Students planning to make this year a gap year between A levels and university got a rather nasty shook when the government decided to make graduates pay back their tuition fees.

According to the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) the change in policy forced many students to unpack their rucksacks and head off to college a year early. In this way they scraped in as the last graduate intake to enjoy free college fees.

Angela Baron, policy adviser at the Institute, warns that this mass postponement of years-out could be storing up trouble ahead.

"We can end up bitter and twisted if we don't take a year out," she says, adding, "we have got one life and people feel they must do as much as they can with it."

The real impact of the 1997/8 rush for college places will probably not be felt for another five years when graduates have settled into jobs. It's then that people who postponed plans to go trekking in Nepal or help build a hospital in the third world will begin rekindling their wanderlust.

Employers who can't accommodate these desires risk losing valuable members of staff.

Employers will also find that it's not cost-effective to invest in people who leave to fulfil travelling or other ambitions but then never return.

Already a number of companies have recognised that good personnel management practice means satisfying a growing demand for career breaks in the workplace. In 1991 ICI set up a sabbatical scheme which allows all its staff a chance of a maximum five year break from work. Initially this was to help employees who wanted time to look after pre-school children or care for relatives. Now it provides for many different opportunities, including world grand tours, charity work and time spent taking further qualifications.

Explains ICI's senior human resources officer, Julie Washington-Sare: "It is at the discretion of the heads of department and guarantees a return to work at the same level at which you left." The scheme even allows for participants to spend a fortnight a year back at ICI updating their skills or familiarising themselves with new developments in their field.

ICI employees can also make informal requests to take un-paid leave for shorter periods. Ms Washington-Sare used this arrangement herself to spend three months on unpaid leave in the Borneo jungle with the charity Raleigh International.

Other areas of business are following the ICI lead. Last year City solicitors Simmons & Simmons were the first law firm to set up a formal career break facility for their partners.

The scheme allows lawyers not only the freedom to concentrate on their legal careers outside the firm - such as training as judges - but also to indulge in non-law interests.

Many other businesses still have not implemented such systems. Marks & Spencer does not offer its employees an official career break scheme. Instead it "unofficially" encourages entrants to its graduate management programme to take a gap year before joining the company.

Explains M&S's Francis Cutts: "We are unofficially well disposed to graduates going travelling and getting it out of their systems. It generally means they have got more life skills to offer their employer. It shows they can be self-sufficient and use their own initiative." Ms Cutts says M&S doesn't advertise this fact because the company has graduate management intake targets which would not be met if everybody who applied for a job deferred their entry.

The IPD's Angela Baron spent a year travelling around the world before starting work. "Just having the experience of arranging to find somewhere to sleep for the night," she says, "can be put to use in the workplace."

Since the demise of national service, which really forced all men to take a year or two out, college leavers have been in search of similar character building adventures.

Today, the temptations for prospective year-outers are bafflingly multifarious. Popular choices include, working holidays on a kibbutz, teaching in foreign language schools, or charity work organised by organisations like the Voluntary Service Oversees.

Nevertheless, Ms Baron is sure that most employers are suspicious of senior members of staff who request long breaks from the office.

She sets the cut-off age at 25-years old. Older employees have to have a very good reason to justify taking a career break, she says. As more flexible working practices evolve, such as teleworking and job sharing, employers will have to overcome any prejudices to senior members of the workforce taking time out from careers.

In the mean time, according to Ms Washington-Sare, the number of graduates taking years out before joining companies like ICI, has increased in the last three to five years. "It's now recognised as a responsible way to structure a career path. Five to ten years ago it was seen as something more frivolous."

Ms Baron even suggests that students who took years out and managed to find employment afterwards used to think they "had got away with it".

Today the burden is still upon the job applicant to show that they have done something useful with their year. Ms Baron says it's best not to have any gaps in a CV which could leave the employer with the suspicion that the applicant has spent a long period devoted to solely hedonist pursuits.

Sums up Ms Baron: "I know a lot of people who wished they had taken a year out when they had the chance which is really quite sad. But I also know people who took a year out ten years ago and haven't stopped travelling."