Can volunteering or taking a gap year improve your chances on the job market?

Volunteering overseas or taking a gap year is not an easy decision to make. Many are afraid of taking such a leap, with the concern of whether they will find paid work after such an adventure at the forefront of their mind.

As this decision is a difficult one, especially in times where jobs are scarce in many countries, we would like to highlight some of our thoughts, that might assist you in making the right decisions about your future.

Recent discussions with my own son Noah, who is turning 18 this year, have revolved around the question of what he should be studying. Should he take a gap year, travel and work his way across Europe? Is taking a gap year a good decision at all?

It was interesting for me to see how my son is leaning towards making this big decision with his sole motivation being “what jobs will make me enough money in the future?” He is not considering what he likes to do or what he is passionate about, but what will guarantee him job security and wealth. He isn’t very passionate about mathematics or finance or other related subjects, but this is not deterring him from studying Accounting instead of something he actually enjoys. He has his own ideas, and although we have discussed them openly, with me trying to convince him to take a gap year and go to Europe to work and get some different experiences, it remains a difficult choice for any youngster in that phase of life!

I personally have a strong opinion about this matter, as I took 2 gap years after high school to travel, worked abroad in Israel and Egypt, worked in construction, and ended up making a conscious decision to go back to school and study. I learned from my personal experiences in that time that I wanted to study, and that I wanted to develop myself more instead of starting a working career without any paperwork. During my travels I realised that I should study something which interests me - working with people - and I ended up studying Social Science because of this.

The huge value of investing in your future, and practical learning in the field instead of in a classroom, is something we as a society AND as parents do not support enough. It almost seems that we have accepted that our children need to become “office furniture”, sitting in a cubicle on the 10th floor of some financial institution or corporation, to make enough money and to supposedly be a “happier” person.

I believe this is all wrong, and we should teach our youth to strive and learn towards finding their passion, and how they can make an income out of doing something they actually like. Some might say this is unrealistic, but I strongly believe it is possible if we support and teach our children that they can be all they want to be - and that being a lawyer, banker or doctor is actually pretty boring if you don’t have a huge passion for these fields to begin with.

How do we allow our children to explore the range of options out there and learn about themselves enough to make the right decision? My advice is that they should be allowed to step away from their formal education to take that gap year and travel, see something of the world, work, meet new people, step out of their comfort zone, work “average” jobs to save up and travel again; and to actually use this critical phase in life to explore the world and its opportunities.

I believe we have been taught from a young age to look up to the suit-wearing, so-called “successful” people in society - those that own houses, cars, wear nice clothing and seem to have it all. Ask any of these people if they would have done things differently in hindsight, and most will reply that they wish they had travelled a bit more, or waited a little longer before starting on their career. So there we have the first answer for those that question this kind of step in life - those who did not take time off to travel, and invest in themselves in a different path from formal studying, wish they had made a different decision.

On a more personal level, I think few 18- or 19-year-olds have any clue what they want out of life, and what field of study they should choose. Most choose something because they think it is the right study choice for them, others choose because of what their parents have made them believe will be the right choice, and still others choose a field because they want to make lots of money. Very rarely do young adults choose a field because they have a passion for the subject, and I believe that is exactly what is lacking in our youth’s education.

We teach youngsters that job security, wealth and good jobs will bring them happiness - and I’m not saying it won’t - but it’s not the primary goal we should set for our children. Wouldn’t it be great if they could study and work in a field they are passionate about, and also make an income out of?

Knowing what you are passionate about is something you discover over time, and through being exposed to a variety of choices and options. A gap year, or even a couple of months of travelling or volunteering can give you exactly that – perspective, and experiences of new things, and seeing what is out there in the world.

The choice of taking a break from studying, after high school or during university, will allow you to develop yourself in ways no formal education can – and which I believe will also actually improve your chances on the job market.

Many employers nowadays appreciate international experience on your CV -  9 out of 10 Canadian employers said they “value prospective employees with international experiences because it develops cross-cultural understanding.” (ICEF Insights 2016)

Having international experience through studying or volunteering abroad, counts for something – it shows you are willing to adapt to new situations; you are independent enough to take a big step; you have learned how to deal with a new culture, languages and people; and you are more likely to be pro-active and adaptable to those who have not had any international experience.

So if you have doubts about your future and jobs are scarce - invest in your future and  volunteer or study abroad. This will add a valuable component to your CV that your future employers will love. Nearly all (97%) surveyed American students who studied abroad, secured a job within 12 months of graduation, compared to only 49% of graduates who did not go abroad (IES Abroad 2016).

Hope to see you in Africa!



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