Meet the new age travellers

Gappers used to be 18, in search of freedom. These days, says Laura Jones, they're graduates looking for skills

When I graduated this time last year, I hadn't really thought about a gap year. The climate seemed perfect to start the ascent of those slippery job-ladder rungs. Lehman, Fannie and Freddie were still functioning and, ironically, I had landed a reporting job at a niche financial magazine in London.

But within two weeks, the financial world had tumbled down. Crunch time really came with the six-month review, when I was told I wouldn't be getting the promised pay rise for another one or two years.

Searching unsuccessfully for another job grew tiring. Options were limited in terms of roles available but, conversely, my expectations had grown, and I wasn't willing to just take something for the sake of it.

The perfect time, then, to travel, learn another language and figure out what to do with my life. So I packed my rucksack and took off for a post-university gap year.

And it seems I'm not alone. A new trend is emerging among graduates. Gone are the days of weighty parental warnings about getting straight into any old office job. Nowadays, graduates are taking advantage of the current climate to gain skills, volunteer or add to their repertoire of languages.

Even the Government has acknowledged the benefits of gap years for graduates. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in partnership with gap-year organisation Raleigh International, recently announced that it is to fund some 500 university-leavers to go on projects as far afield as India and Costa Rica.

The scheme responds to the context of an increasingly tough job market for recent graduates. Furthermore, the skills developed on these projects are valued in the workplace, thus improving volunteers' employability.

Graduates, employers, gap-year organisations and the Government all seem to agree that the life and business experience gained from a volunteer project is unbeatable.

Victoria Arkell, 23, graduated a year ago with a degree in French and German from Nottingham University. She is just finishing a gap year, which included volunteering in Tanzania, travelling around South America, as well as interning in London and being a ski host in Meribel, France.

She is soon to start as a business analyst in London with Gü, the luxury pudding company, and says the skills she developed on her post-university gap year helped her to land the job – and will continue to benefit her in the future.

"This year has dramatically improved my CV and shown that I am versatile and independent," she says. "I gained people skills and specific customer-relations skills from my ski season, and my language skills have improved considerably – in Swahili and Spanish."

Neil Finnie, marketing and partners manager at Global Vision International (GVI) has certainly noticed British graduates in the 21-to-23-year-old bracket flocking to the company's projects in the past three to six months. The company has now launched long- and short-term internships to cope with the demand of graduates looking to get more tangible benefits from their time overseas.

"We have new BTECs in leadership, biological survey techniques, safari field-guide courses, Padi [diving] qualifications and Tefl courses," says Finnie.

He adds that many employers see graduates who look good on paper, but find they lack life and leadership skills. These are the benefits that GVI volunteers get with a more structured programme: they help the community, put in time, energy and money, and, in turn, get enhanced abilities.

Bruce Haxton, operations director at i-to-i, the volunteer travel company, agrees. "I've had a lot of feedback from employers expressing how positive they feel trips like ours are in terms of skills and personal development," he says.

"Business leaders have been saying that those who have volunteered and experienced life have a lot more to offer. They know more about themselves and others, and it stands to reason that they would make better employees."

Around a quarter of those travelling with i-to-i from the UK are recent graduates, and Haxton expects this to increase in the next two or three months, as university leavers decide what they want to do in the short term, and take time out to travel and volunteer.

Even Prospects, the official graduate careers website, says: "If you want to take time out, see the world and learn new skills, a gap year is the perfect way to round off university life."

I'm now travelling through South America and, having so far spent time in Buenos Aires and Rosario, Argentina, have met many others on similar journeys. I'm writing and photographing, and took a month-long Spanish course in Buenos Aires in the hope that adding another language to my repertoire will help with job opportunities.

I'm unsure how future employers will perceive the fact that I simply quit my job and left Britain. But I hope that I will come across as someone who knew what she wanted and pursued it.