Gap years aren't only for youngsters

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by Roger Jones

Do you ever feel envious when you read reports of young people going off for a gap year in some exotic clime? Perhaps you now regret that you were not more adventurous in the days of your youth. But instead of thinking about what might have been, why not jet off and "do your own thing" for once?

Before you look round for excuses, bear in mind that even mature people are taking having gap years (or half-years) these days. Indeed, the fastest growing sector of the "gap year market" is the 25 to 35 age group, and an increasing number of middle-aged and retired people are getting in on the act.

But how will your employers and work colleagues react if you announce that you are going to disappear for a period of time. Might they sense that you lack commitment to your work? After all, in today's competitive jobs market it is sometimes dangerous to drop your guard?

Some might look askance, but on the other hand you may get a very positive reaction. There are plenty of discerning employers who will go out of their way to encourage staff to broaden their outlook and who would be prepared to give you leave of absence.

Much will depend on how you plan to spend your time. The idea of a round the world tour might sound wonderful, but it would cut less ice with the boss. On the other hand, if you opted for something which would improve your skills, nobody is likely to object. You could, for example, get to grips with a foreign language. Spanish in South America, Japanese in Yokohama or Chinese in Beijing might sound hard work, but the experience could be very stimulating. Why not contact a language training organisation for details?

Another idea would be to take a job abroad, though this needs careful planning. Bear in mind that you normally need a work permit for countries outside the European Union. However, volunteer work is a different ball game and can be particularly challenging and rewarding.

Nowadays there are a number of organisations that can arrange work for you. VSO is a leader in the field: it has volunteers working in 34 countries in Africa and Asia and many of these are in their thirties or older. In the past many of the posts required a two year commitment, but since the merger with BESO the organisation is on the lookout for trouble-shooters to take up assignments lasting from two weeks to six months.

There are several other organisations which can organise work placements in the Third World such as i-to-i and Teaching and Projects Abroad. Normally you have to pay a placement fee, but in return you are provided with basic accommodation at post and there is a local representative to sort things out for you. "We can place people aged 17 to 70," a spokesman for Teaching and Projects Abroad told me

Generally speaking, voluntary organisations welcome more mature volunteers, especially those with relevant qualifications and experience. However, these are not essential. Far more important are personal attributes such as flexibility, tolerance and common sense. The range of jobs on offer is considerable, and includes community development, teaching, social work, marine and forestry conservation, and working on organic farms.
Religious organisations, too, are worth investigation, and you do not need a doctorate in Divinity in order to be considered. They are usually on the lookout for teachers and community workers. Among the organisations offering overseas placements of varying lengths of time are Latin Link, Interserve and the Scottish Churches Worldwide Exchange.

Finally, have you ever considered working in the holiday business? Here many of the jobs are seasonal or short-term. Winter sports resorts require ski instructors and chalet staff; summer resorts need reps and catering staff; tour companies need tour managers; cruise ships employ all manner of personnel to look after their passengers. If you are prepared to invest in a training course you could end up as a diving instructor or crewing a yacht. Taking time out from your job could well open up new horizons beyond your wildest imagination.

Worldwide Volunteering for Young People (How To Books) lists a large number of organisations offering placements on volunteer terms. Don't be put off by the words "young people", as several of the organisations place volunteers of all ages. You Want to Work Where?! (Trotman) describes short-term opportunities abroad in greater detail and includes a directory of voluntary organisations and mainly other organisations (notably travel firms) which offer short term assignments.

Useful websites: (language tuition abroad) (voluntary work abroad) (voluntary work abroad) (holiday firms) (cruise ships) (yachts, watersports centres)

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