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Why Some People are Postponing Getting a Real Job

How would you like to work with sled dogs in Alaska? How about working on a ranch in Australia? Or perhaps backpacking through Europe is more your thing.

Many college grads aren't going straight into a "real" job right after graduation. Instead, they're choosing activities like those above for a few months.

Experts, including those at colleges and universities, say these activities can be extremely valuable. However, there are dangers to watch for.

As many as one in 10 graduates chooses to postpone a "real" job, estimates U.S. News and World Report. Exact figures aren't available, but the trend seems to be growing.

"It's impossible to do real studies on taking time off, particularly after college, because no one knows exactly what that means," says Ron Lieber. He's the author of Taking Time Off and a senior writer with Fast Company magazine. "I think there's more acceptance of it as a phenomenon."

Lieber points out that many college grads get jobs that are somewhat related to their degrees. Others just travel, while others volunteer or take a job completely unrelated to their studies. All this variety makes it hard to say exactly how popular postponing a "real" job is.

Cornelius Bull has noticed a large growth in interest in what he calls "interim programs." Bull started the Center for Interim Programs over 20 years ago. It places 300 students a year in alternate situations. Some of these include working on an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka, cooking on a tall ship in the Caribbean, working in the rainforests of Costa Rica and teaching English in Japan.

Bull describes the interest as "tremendous." He says the chance to travel or work abroad is part of becoming an adult for many young people.

"We've taken away all the rites of passage," Bull says. "You don't have to slay a lion anymore to demonstrate your manhood. We've made life very easy for kids, and I think they feel that.

"They're anxious to take some control of their lives. All they've done all their lives is go to school."

The center also deals with recent high school grads, college students still working on degrees as well as "48-year-old burned-out lawyers."

Besides wanting to feel independent, there are other reasons college grads take time off. Some just need to take a break after four years of hard work in school. Others want to see the world and become more well-rounded. And some want a chance to reassess their priorities -- to answer the question: what do I want out of life?

"They want to explore the world and travel before they get stuck in a job," says Linda McFarlane. She works with a university career services department.

Many college grads don't have to start paying off student loans until six months after graduation. They see this time as a great opportunity.

"When you have this yawning space staring at you in the face, it's very difficult to resist the urge to do something really off-the-wall with it," says Lieber. "It's entirely possible that you'll never have a block of time that large again as long as you live."

Lieber knows grads who've worked on political campaigns, volunteered in foreign countries and even traveled with a band while selling concert T-shirts. "All of those things display a certain zest for life, a certain verve, that someone who puts the gray flannel suit on the day after graduation may not possess," Lieber says.

Stacey Oleksuk is a college graduate. She chose to spend seven months teaching English in Japan. "I decided to go to Japan because I wanted an opportunity to learn about a culture first-hand," she says.

She says she received many benefits from her experience. "By living and working in Japan, I learned some of the language, a lot about the culture and the people, and most of all, about my own country," she says.

"Living in Japan also taught me to appreciate the differences between cultures," Oleksuk adds. "I understand better that every culture has its benefits and its drawbacks and no country is better than another."

The broader perspective a person gains is the reason many colleges encourage students to take time off. If the student hasn't had a broad range of experiences before college, right after college might be a great time.

"We always encourage students to explore the world, get experience, do volunteer work [or] travel," says McFarlane.

McFarlane advises students not to do just anything. Instead, they should plan ahead to get the most out of the experience. "There's so many things you can learn, but think about it and plan for it and figure out what you want."

Not all students are free to postpone a "real" job. With the high cost of education, they may feel the pressure to start paying back student loans right away.

Students also have to consider whether their skills will become rusty or outdated. This is especially true if their education is in a high-tech field.

"The skills are going to deteriorate, there's no question," says instructor Keith Black. He teaches at a technical institute.

"We've seen people who take even a month or two months off come back and say in interviews, 'Boy, you know, I haven't touched that technology for two months.' That starts to chip away at a potential employer's confidence."

Black says it's "extremely rare" for graduates of his institute to take time off. They know how fast technology changes and don't want to be left behind.

Any student who takes time off needs to explain the value of their experience to future employers. Basically, if they can explain "why they have a transferable skill set that an employer can use, like the eagerness to learn and grow, it may not have that big an impact," Black says.

Lieber agrees that the key is explaining the value of your time off. Then, the experience can be an asset when seeking future employment.

"It depends on your ability to tell a good story about what it is that you were doing [and] what you learned from it," Lieber says. "What employers are looking for these days is people who are independent, who think creatively, who have big ideas and who have some exposure to the world at large."

There are many exciting options for young people who want to experience the world after college. You're only limited by your imagination (and perhaps finances). Just make sure your choice fits you.

Lieber sums it up this way: "It should be time spent doing something that you're really passionate about, that gives you some insight as to what you might want to do next, or how you might want to do what you already have been doing differently or in a better way."

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