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MIND THE GAP: What A Year Off Means to Potential Employers

Editor's note: This is the third part of a series of stories examining the gap year, based on the research of recent Philadelphia University graduate Veronica Moul.

Anticipation is an inherent part of a gap year, which we’ve come to know as a period of time between four months and two years doing something planned out and purposeful, which is different from the mundane and everyday.  It's exciting and fun, but at some point, every gap year-taker has to stop and ask a serious question:

What happens after the gap year?

That, of course, leads to the other obvious question:

How will potential employers react?  

Well, I conducted a survey of 329 employers, ranging from small firms to large corporations throughout Pennsylvania. There was some consistency when it came to employers’ perceptions of gap years, like the 99 percent who acknowledged that important life skills can be obtained outside of the workplace.  Perhaps that is common sense, but it is nice to have some statistics to back it up.  

On the other hand, only 56 percent agree that they are able to identify whether an applicant organized a well-planned, purposeful gap year versus taking time off with no plan. Eighteen percent say they are not able to identify between the two, and 26 percent  are not sure if they would be able to tell the difference.  This shows that employers need to be more aware of what can happen during a gap year, and how it can benefit their company.  

Kelly Hayes and Thomas Dockray can help create some awareness. Although they had two very different gap years, their career paths were greatly influenced as a result.

The Gap Year's Universal Language
Hayes, 32 grew up just outside of Southeast PA in Haddon Twp., N.J., and graduated in from Rowan University in 2001. She then spent 16 months teaching conversational English in South Korea through a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.  Here interest was great, having had a friend who taught English in Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, a love of travel, and also being a Korean native who was adopted by an American family. She clearly enjoyed about her lifestyle while in South Korea and had many memorable experiences, but what did she learn and how did it impact her life afterward?  

"I loved the experience, but realized teaching wasn't for me while I was there," she says. "I learned a lot about another culture and have a greater appreciation for foreign foods. I also have a lot more patience with those in the U.S. who can't speak English very well."

While she occasionally reverts to the broken English she sometimes had to use in South Korea, Hayes believes the experience was great for her resume.

"It's a major plus for employers who actually know what the program is," she says. Others just think it's very interesting that I would choose to do that for one and a half years."

Hayes was eventually hired for a government job that she "wasn't technically qualified for. Most people hired had a computer science or electrical engineering degree. I had neither. But my wide range of work experience and Fulbright may have helped. Most Fulbrighters, or even people who teach English abroad, need to be flexible, resourceful and able to adapt to new situations."

That backs up my survey finding where 83 percent responded that they only sometimes prefer formal education over experience and 12 percent who responded that they never prefer formal education over experience.
Gap years help determine a person’s next step in life.

The Punk Rock Accountant
For Dockray, 30, taking a gap year helped him decide to pursue an education.  Dockray is now a Senior Accountant at Stephano Slack LLC, but if it was not for his gap year pursuing music he may have never discovered what to do professionally.  After one semester of computer science at Delaware County Community College, he realized it was not for him.  From February 2000 to September 2001, Dockray worked many low-paying, manual labor jobs to support himself while playing drums and touring with a punk rock band called the Overdrives.  The band played shows up and down the east coast, and since Dockray was getting jobs through a temp agency, he was able to start and end jobs according to the band’s schedule.

Despite the numerous factory jobs, Dockray was "going after something I really wanted and even if I crashed and burned I could still say that I had the courage to take a shot and that is something that I am proud of."

It also gave him the "recognition of the importance of an education.  I knew that I would want a family someday and unless I wanted to work 100 hours a week at a factory, I’d better get myself an education.

However, he still did not know what he wanted to study.  Then it hit him.

"The the entire time I’d been with this band I was performing all the accounting functions," remembers Dockray. "And then it occurred to me: why don’t I go back to school for accounting?"

Today, Dockray is currently completing a Master’s in Taxation at Philadelphia University.

While it’s clear a gap year can significantly influence an individual’s career path, one must still be articulate the experience to potential employers and be prepared for possible rejection. Some employers see gap years as a "time to get off the conveyor belt and look around" or that an applicant "is willing to take on challenges and is interested in exploring the world outside their expertise. There are also naysayers who might think it’s "time a potential employee spent off task" or "time out of the field-typically unemployment-which translates to lost opportunity to gain experience and grow as the industry grows."

Ultimately, that should not deter anyone from trying a gap year. After all, 92 percent of survey respondents allow job applicants to explain why they took time off from school or work.

Just be prepared to do so.

VERONICA MOUL is one of the first four graduates from the Professional Communication program at Philadelphia University. When she is not traveling the globe, or developing genius ideas, she can be found reading up on social media or playing board games with friends. Read her Widen the Gap blog or send feedback here.

Kelly Hayes (center, with glasses) and her host family in South Korea.
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