Miércoles 4 de Mayo de 2005, Ip nº 107

Arranging a grown-up gap year
Por Gwladys Fouché

Taking a gap year from work is becoming more popular, but what's the best way to achieve it? What are the financial implications? And how can you make sure your job's still there when you come home?

There was a time when taking a year out was the preserve of school leavers and university graduates. Not anymore.
More and more professionals are taking time out of the rat race, be it to help in the aftermath of the tsunami or admire the sunrise in the Sahara, by taking unpaid leave from their employers.

According to a recent YouGov poll of 2,000 employees, one in seven have already left the day job to go abroad, and more than 75% are thinking of doing the same.

If you're thinking of packing your bags yourself, bear in mind the following before knocking on your manager's door.

First, there is no legal requirement on firms to grant unpaid leave. It is a purely voluntary agreement between you and your employer, they are under no obligation to let you go.

However, the likelihood of them letting you take the time off is increasing. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 26% of companies now have a formal policy on career breaks, 16% have informal arrangements, and 4% are planning to introduce the scheme.

Why is it becoming popular? "It keeps people long-term," says Peri Thomas, human resources manager at Yorkshire Water, which has had an unpaid leave scheme in place for two years. "It boosts staff morale and increases productivity. And it's good for recruiting new people."

Yorkshire Water's scheme allows employees who have worked for the company for one year to take up to two years' unpaid leave. Many employees take time off to visit relatives abroad or do a full-time academic course.

Paul Edwards, a 29-year-old City banker, convinced his employers to let him take a four-month career break with the promise that he would return afterwards.

"I think they thought 'if we say no, he might go'" says Mr Edwards, who last year went to Bolivia to teach English before travelling on to Peru and Spain.

It also helped that Mr Edwards showed the possible benefits to his company. "I said I wanted to learn Spanish and that going abroad would help me develop new skills after five years in the same job," he says.

Your employer is more likely to be sympathetic to your wishes if you, in turn, are sensitive to their concerns. Give them plenty of notice, say two or three months, and try to pick a time of year when business is quieter. Offer, too, to help arrange cover for your job.

"My boss's only concerns were about the practicalities of my leave: when I was going, for how long and who was going to replace me," says Gillian Porter, 34, a married mother-of-one. Mrs Porter was the first person to ask for unpaid leave at the Manchester-based logistics company where she is a secretary.

But Mrs Porter, who volunteered in a Sri Lankan orphanage for nine weeks, is clear about why she was granted a break: "If it had not been a humanitarian mission, I don't think my boss would have given it," she says.

If your employer agrees to let you take time off, make sure you get it in writing. "Specify the length of time you're going for, the return date, and check that your terms and conditions will not change," says Nick Isles from the Work Foundation.

Think too about the financial implications, not just in the present but in the future. If you have an occupational pension, your employer's contributions may stop.

Staff at Barclays, which offers career breaks of up 12 months for staff continuously employed for two years, will find that this is the case. However, at British Airways, which has had an unpaid leave scheme for more than three years, continues to pay contributions to pensions, although only to people in managerial positions.

It may be worth considering what would happen if you needed to return to work sooner than planned, say because the money ran out or your plans fell through. A lot will depend on how your company covers your job while you are away.

At Yorkshire Water for instance, covering the job involves colleagues working overtime or employing temporary staff, so if a member of staff needs to cut their leave short, it is relatively straightforward to accept them back. If, on the other hand, another person has been seconded to your position, or contracted in, then things may be more complicated.

With careful planning and preparation, though, you should find yourself in the best position possible: on course for a life-changing experience, without the worry of quitting your job.

  26/04/2005. The Guardian.


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