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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 August, 2004, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
Mind the gap (year)
By Mary Braid
BBC News Online

Rising competition for graduate jobs has left students wondering exactly what they can do to stand out in the interview room. Does the traditional gap year still open career doors?

Tom Griffiths was armed with a 2:1 in economics from Manchester University when he joined the growing army of graduates battling to get a toehold on the career ladder. To his surprise, employers showed little interest in his course.

Where you went may be less important than who paid
"They were more interested in my gap-year work and travel, and that I earned money busking with my didgeridoo," says Mr Griffiths. "They also wanted to know about my charity fundraising."

His experience chimes with the findings of a new study which claims that, as the government pursues its target of 50% participation in higher education, a 2:1 is fast becoming the minimum expectation employers have of graduates.

The study's authors also claim that the current "Darwinian war for talent" is now so keen that the gap year - once a straightforward mark of distinction - now has to be absolutely extraordinary to single a graduate out.

Straightforward canoeing up the Amazon is no longer enough. The graduate has to have paddled backwards.


More and more students are opting to take a year out before and after university. But in a competitive jobs market is the gap year, like the degree, losing its potency?

Mr Griffiths, founder of gapyear.com, insists that the gap year experience does still count with employers because it can demonstrate a candidate's initiative, and communication and decision-making skills.

Did you do what you did on your own initiative and did you raise the money to do it yourself?
Tom Griffiths, gapyear.com

But he disputes the conclusion of another recent report, funded by the government, which suggested that structured voluntary and paid placements enhance a CV more than round-the-world, back-packing extravaganzas.

"If you ask people whether it is better to spend a gap year in China, teaching orphans English, or to sit on a Thai beach then most people will opt for the orphanage," says Mr Griffiths. "But that misses the point.

"What matters more than what you do is what you got out of it. Did you do what you did on your own initiative and did you raise the money to do it yourself?

"If you reached the Thai beach all by yourself then that is more impressive that a structured stint in China paid for by Mum and Dad."

Low-paid jobs

What the government fails to recognise, argues Mr Griffiths, is that the gap year has changed beyond recognition since the 1960s, when it was the preserve of a minority of rich kids who went abroad on character-building adventures.

University graduates
Competition for graduate jobs is tight

These days 50,000 young people take a pre-university gap year, which increasingly entails periods of employment in low-paid jobs.

Wages are stockpiled to fund future student debts, short periods of overseas travel and unpaid work experience related to hoped-for careers.

Only 6% of pre-university gap years involve a supported overseas or home placement. Most young people structure their own pre-university year off and often it does not even involve actually leaving home and vital free digs.

Mr Griffiths says his research suggests that the numbers embarking on a pre-university gap year will double in the next few years, partly in recognition of the career edge they can still bestow.

'Confront and conquer'

Jason Clarke, spokesman for the bank HBOS, agrees that the gap year can still give the 2:1 student turned prospective employee added appeal.

What we want to know is what people have done, why they did it and what they got out of it.
Jason Clarke, HBOS

"The ones that are useful are those that take you out of your comfort zone," says Mr Clarke. "White water rafting down the Zambezi is not enough unless of course you happen to be hydrophobic and you can talk about how it helped you confront and conquer your fears.

"What we want to know is what people have done, why they did it and what they got out of it."

Jessica Jarvis, adviser with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says the expansion of higher education is making the graduate job search harder for students and selection more onerous for companies.

But she says "framing" the gap year experience can be crucial, giving an average year out the edge over a better one.

What gappers need to do is tease out what they gained and learned for potential employers, she says. Buried under a pile of applications, companies will be duly grateful.

Ms Jarvis agrees that the straight-forward overseas gap year may no longer be enough.

What may matter more is a mix of gap year experiences, dissected at interview into a range of work-related competencies.

Ironically, says Ms Jarvis, in the midst of this vicious graduate scrum, four out of five UK employers still complain they cannot recruit and retain staff with the right skills.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Anyone who goes on a gap year of any description simply to enhance their CV is completely missing the point. The only reason to travel and/or volunteer is to broaden horizons, see new and different places, face fresh challenges. There's no doubt that, once back in Blighty, these experiences and skills learned can be very valuable in the job market, but travel is a romantic endeavour, not something to be pursued for the purpose of impressing a human resources officer.
John, UK

I think most of the big players in the grad job market know that a mixture of a 2:1 from a red brick uni, some good life experience and relevant work experience is more desirable than someone who spent three years in the library and got a first.
Jonathan West, England

Gap years should not be about enhancing career prospects, anyone who takes a gap year to do so lacks the character to succeed either in a year off or in a challenging career.
Ian, UK

The reason I spent a year travelling round Asia was to get away from corporate annoyance not to please would be bosses. There's too many people going for the wrong reasons now anyway
Jamieson Bray, England

Pitching up in Sydney, boozing up the Gold Coast and picking a few grapes to fund it adds no value to your CV. Time out must demonstrate real life and useful skills to an employer. Otherwise its just a year long holiday.
Al, UK

As an employer, I want to employ interesting people, and a gap year certainly doesn't hurt in that respect. But the most important thing is just to make sure you spell 'gap year' correctly on the CV. It is amazing how many people don't bother to proofread their CVs and seem to think that I would want to employ someone who can't spell.
Adam, UK

What happened to the gap year being plain old fun rather than a business decision!?
Emily, London, UK

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