Taking time out to grow

A career break can give you a rest and help you acquire experience at the same time, says Megan Dorcas
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The Independent Travel

You have worked hard to get a good job, home and lifestyle. Surely the most reckless thing you could do now is to give it all up and leave the country? A career break could seriously damage your career - and your relationships with friends and family.

You have worked hard to get a good job, home and lifestyle. Surely the most reckless thing you could do now is to give it all up and leave the country? A career break could seriously damage your career - and your relationships with friends and family.

That's an understandable point of view, but it could also be a short-sighted one. Career breaks have become an accepted part of professional life, valued by employers and employees alike. According to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), one in four businesses participating in the 2004 Employment Trends Survey said they offered career breaks as part of a flexible employment package. And they're in good company: blue-chip firms such as Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, BT and Sainsbury's believe that offering career breaks helps to attract and retain good staff. They also consider career breaks to benefit the company in the longer term, and forge relationships with concerns such as Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).

Management consultant Accenture was one of the first organisations to join VSO's business partnerships scheme. Sue Rice, who is Accenture's UK director of human resources, says: "Our staff return with a new range of skills. They've experienced different ways of working, they have a better understanding of foreign cultures, and come back with greater resilience and confidence. In addition, they are refreshed, remotivated and raring to go."

However, not all companies possess such positive attitudes towards career breaks - or have a large enough workforce to cover staff on extended leave. If you work for an organisation such as this, then it will be more daunting to give up your job to take a career break. Having said that, you should always try to negotiate a sabbatical, regardless of your company's policy on leave. You may be surprised: good staff are hard to find, recruitment is expensive and you are probably more valuable to your current employer than you imagine.

If you see a career break as a way to get out of a dead-end job, don't waste your time, as well as your employer's, by negotiating for a job for when you get back. However, if you are committed to returning, your most important tool is a well-prepared and well-argued business case. Before you go into discussions, think through all the pros and cons of your career break from an employer's point of view and have practical answers or solutions for the disadvantages. The more flexible you can be, the easier it is to negotiate.

You need to show what new skills you will learn, what goals you will achieve and how these will benefit your company when you return. For instance, many placements as a volunteer help improve leadership, communication and people skills as well as self-confidence and resourcefulness. Learning a language can be a valuable business tool too.

Most career-breakers opt to open negotiations between three to six months ahead of their ideal departure dates. This gives them and their employer enough time to work out all the details and put temporary replacement plans into operation.

If your negotiations are successful then you can expect a relatively soft professional landing when you return home (ie a comparable job and salary to the one you are temporarily leaving). If not, you'll need to resign. Of course, you may want to do this from the outset, or - as some BBC staff are currently experiencing - the decision may be forced upon you. If you're unhappy in your job or have to move on for other reasons, then a career break is an opportunity to take stock or acquire experience in a new field. So, what happens when you take a career break and don't have a job to go back to?

Michelle Hawkins has taken two career breaks and resigned both times. "I was 29 and worked in advertising when I took my first one. I bought a one-way ticket to Kathmandu and was away for 14 months," she says. When Michelle came home, she found it easy to find employment. "It took me four weeks to get a job doing exactly the same thing at a rival organisation. I knew people there, I had the right experience and I was full of energy," she says.

Virginia Kelly, 30, quit her job as a solicitor to travel for a year. When she returned and applied for jobs, she wrote about her career break in her covering letter. "I got a lot of interviews because it made me stand out. I think employers were more interested in my career break than some of my friends were. They recognised that it took confidence and courage."

Michelle and Virginia's experiences are typical of career-breakers, but there are a number of things you can do to help you reintegrate into the job market when you return:

* Have five or six years of work under your belt before you take off.

* Think about how your career break will look on your CV and make sure you spend your time constructively.

* Leave on good terms with your current employer and maintain other contacts in your industry; these people will be invaluable when you're back and looking for a job.

* Keep up-to-date with news about your profession while you're away, for example by religiously reading the trade journals online.

* Come back at a good time for your profession - for instance, to coincide with a major industry fair or exhibition or at a time when you know your profession is hiring.

Michelle Hawkins took a second career break seven years later. This time she quit her job as publicity officer for a publisher with the express intention of using a break to change her career. "Long term, I wanted to work in the humanitarian aid sector, but this is a highly competitive area and without any experience you don't even get an interview." Michelle used a career break to volunteer as a press officer for Raleigh International in Ghana and as a project manager for a Raleigh expedition in Costa Rica. "I gained relevant experience in the field and it worked. Six months after returning home, I became the communications and fundraising officer for the international humanitarian aid organisation, Médecins du Monde UK."

Little wonder career breaks are being re-named "career steps".

CBI ( www.cbi.org.uk)

Raleigh International ( www.raleigh.org.uk)

Médecins du Monde ( www.medecinsdumonde.co.uk)

'I CAN'T HELP THINKING I WAS VERY LUCKY'

Name: Carole Cadwalladr

Age: 35

Occupation: Journalist

What did you do? In 2002 I took voluntary redundancy, calculating I could survive on it for two years while I tried to write a novel. I found someone in the French Alps who needed a cat-sitter and went there to kick-start the book. Twenty-two months after leaving my job, The Family Tree, was sold to publishers in the UK and in the US. I can't help thinking that I was very lucky.

Are you working now? I'm currently working on my second novel.

SAILING THE ATLANTIC

Name: Virginia Kelly

Age: 30

Occupation: Solicitor. Before I took my career break I'd worked for the same firm for four years and been qualified for two.

Why take a career break? My career wasn't going in the direction I wanted. I needed to get away and think carefully about what I wanted professionally. Plus, I was about to turn 30 and this was a catalyst for me.

What did you do? I went away for a year with my partner. He was a good sailor so we flew to Lanzarote to take part in a trans-Atlantic yacht race called the Rubicon Antigua Challenge. I didn't know how to sail so I did a course in the UK before we left. In Lanzarote we negotiated two berths on a comfortable 62ft Oyster yacht. We were at sea for 15 days; crossing the Atlantic was an amazing experience. We spent Christmas and New Year in Antigua on the yacht before going to the Dominican Republic to work at a kite-surfing school for five months. After that we took a bus to Mexico and travelled on a succession of buses and ferries down to Tierra del Fuego. On the way we crewed through the Panama Canal on a small French yacht that needed line-handlers. We then travelled overland to Venezuela where I was born, before flying back to London.

What did you learn? I learnt how to sail and scuba-dive and my Spanish improved considerably. I learnt how far I could push myself and what I was capable of. My career break boosted my confidence and I came home feeling stronger and more sure of myself.

Are you working now? To begin with I temped and did some work experience at London TV. I am now working with a TV production company as their in-house lawyer and loving it.

Top career break tip: Don't be frightened of giving up your job. I found employers really admired what I'd done and I was surprised at the number of professional opportunities I was offered when I came back.

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