School-leavers should find a gap year that will impress a future employer
There has been something of a backlash against far-flung “gap yahs”. Last month Louise Linton, a Scottish actress, was accused of having a “white saviour complex” by exaggerating the danger of her adventures in Zambia as an 18-year-old (she has since withdrawn In Congo’s Shadow, the book in which she made these claims), while this time last year a young traveller was blamed for angering the gods and causing an earthquake by taking her clothes off on a sacred Malaysian mountain.
This came after Sandie Okoro, a senior lawyer at HSBC, told a group of school-leavers that she’d be more impressed by a CV that included a stint working in JD Sports than months spent building an orphanage in China.
Nevertheless, Malia Obama, the US president’s elder daughter, will not be the only young person choosing to take a year out before their university studies begin in 2017. The numbers are rising, with 28,805 A-level students who applied in 2015 deferring the start of university, according to Ucas. This figure has been creeping up since a low in 2011, the year before tuition fees were raised, when only 13,220 took a break before higher education.
The post-recession, austerity gap year looks rather different, however, because more young people are searching for work experience that will impress employers such as Okoro, while maintaining their dream of seeing the world and enjoying a break after years of school exams.
Will Jones, of gapyear.com, says there has been a significant shift in the way employers and universities see the year out. “Before the recession, when having a degree practically guaranteed you a decent job, it was seen as travel for travel’s sake.
“Now, young people are generally much more savvy when it comes to positioning themselves favourably for employment — they have to be because the jobs market is so ludicrously competitive. If someone decides they want to be a journalist, they might still head off to Australia, but instead of spending a month sunbathing on Bondi, they might secure an unpaid internship at a media company in Sydney, set up a travel blog, and try to land a few freelance commissions.”
Tim Fryer, the UK country manager of STA Travel, agrees: “The jobs market is still very tough for young people in the UK. More and more are taking the opportunity to head off on a gap year to broaden their work and life experience, and boost their CV with work experience overseas.”
Travel companies are also reporting a rise in gap-year students visiting more adventurous and exotic locations, but for shorter stretches — the “snap gap”. A year bumming around southeast Asia is out, a few weeks on a conservation project in Madagascar is in.
Fryer says trips of less than three months are up 10 per cent on last year, and although the most popular destinations remain Thailand, Australia, America, Peru and New Zealand, others are “starting to close the gap on the big five”, including Vietnam, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Cuba. He also reports a shift towards responsible travel with a 100 per cent increase since last year in the uptake of STA’s “voluntour” trips, a project that mixes adventure and volunteering.
In 2014 the company dropped all trips and activities in which elephant riding was offered, but its most popular “voluntour” is a week in an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand, looking after animals rescued from the tourist trade. Prices start from £348.
If you are keen to volunteer on your gap year, do your research carefully. The charity Tourism Concern warns that UK volunteers can pay thousands of pounds, most of which go to the tour operator, to take short placements overseas that, even if well-intentioned, can do more harm than good. Volunteers can have disappointing experiences, placements can prevent local workers from getting jobs, and abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments with visitors who then disappear after a few weeks with an entry for their Ucas form and some Instagram snaps.
Be particularly cautious of projects based in orphanages. In the past decade the number of orphaned children has declined worldwide, while the number of orphanages in developing countries has risen in response to the demand from tourists wishing to volunteer, resulting in child-trafficking and unnecessary separation from parents.
A spokesman for Raleigh International, the sustainable development charity, says that if the main motivation of a volunteer is to have a sustainable impact, they should try to work with an organisation that runs long-term programmes based on local and national development plans, and that monitors its work.
“The organisation should also be experienced in working with young people and running safe programmes. If [gap-year students] are only looking for a two-week opportunity, they should really question how much they can contribute in that time.”
Some agents are reporting a rise in the number of “gappers” organising their own trips. The Leap is offering the Gap Year DIY, which it describes as the “Airbnb of gap travel”, putting a traveller in direct contact with projects overseas and bypassing middlemen.
The website workaway.info posts volunteering or work opportunities for anyone who wants to organise their own trip and avoid paying high agency fees. The site has more than 22,500 hosts in 155 countries, and offers a TripAdvisor-style “thorough feedback and safety” system. Vacancies include helping at a yoga retreat in Jamaica and joining a sailing community on an organic farm in Norway.
For something more structured, consider a “learn and earn” scheme where you can pay to develop a skill. Snoworks GAP trains students who want to become ski instructors, then helps to get them into jobs. Some of its programmes guarantee work once students are qualified.
The eight-week GAP course, which costs £7,750, includes training in the French resort of Tignes, and you can qualify before the winter starts. Robert Stewart, a spokesman for the company, says it is becoming fashionable to then go to Japan because there is plenty of work or, perhaps, because it will look glamorous on a blog.
‘We weren’t just people turning up’
Molly Cook, 19, who will study geography at the University of Cambridge this October, took a year out to volunteer abroad, motivated to help other people and the environment. In fact, she got a lot more out of it than she expected: confidence, experience of working with and delegating tasks to others, including older colleagues and friends, and developing her Spanish — all good CV material and skills she believes will help her on her course.
She went to Costa Rica with Raleigh International to rebuild a village water system that had not been maintained for 30 years and was causing preventable illnesses such as diarrhoea.
“Because we worked with local volunteers, they have learnt how to maintain the water system. It was rewarding to see that the help I was providing would impact the community long term,” she says.
She feels the Raleigh volunteers integrated into the community well without being too imposing. “We spent the majority of our free time with the families. It meant we weren’t just a group of people turning up to the village.”
She also worked with a ranger in a national park planting young trees to restore woodland, and went on a gruelling trek that pushed her to the extreme. “I had to be honest about my opinions and learnt to share my thoughts with someone without offending them.”
Her mother, Alison, says she thinks Molly was surprised how much she could achieve. “Although she set off on her own, I knew she was going to be with people who would be looking out for her and that she would essentially be safe. I would certainly recommend it. Having seen what she’s got out of it, it’s an experience she will never forget.”