Sandie Okoro suggested students were better off looking for opportunities at a local sports shop or supermarket, rather than taking a year out for a charity expedition or backpacking across Thailand.
She said that those types of activities tended to indicate that “daddy is rich”, and rarely provide much insight into an individual’s character or their assets.
“Forget about going to China and changing the world or whatever. What are you actually doing that’s different? I want people who can come to me and have had real experiences,” she said.
While gap years are increasingly popular among school-leavers looking for a break in between work, or a different experience – in terms of impressing future employers, they’re seemingly not so popular.
Glen Mintrim, managing director of student and youth travel company STA Travel, suggested the increase was due to the perceived lack of opportunities for students. “The job market is still very tough for young people,” he said.
Those hoping gap years will provide some variety to their work and build life experience, setting themselves up to “bolster their CV with overseas work experience” as Mintrim put it, may be in for a shock though.
While speaking at the Girls’ Day School Trust conference, Okoro said gap years had “become the norm” and an almost routine course of action for many. “I see lots of similar things of the gap years. I’d like to see the mundane and ordinary come back in,” she admitted.
Of course, she isn’t the first person to suggest gap years aren’t all that – the activity dubbed “voluntourism” has come under fire in the past. The surge of young people hoping to do good while having a great time has been criticised for being hijacked and turned into profit by travel agents. In 2007 the University of London found that more than 800 organisations were providing volunteering opportunities across 200 countries – often charging far more than similar experiences offered in the host countries themselves.
There have also been eyebrows raised at the perceived easiness and superficiality of such trips – students helping out for a few weeks or so, before hopping off on the next stage of their life (and hopefully career) enhancing trip. Some suggested that a gap year volunteer’s presence does more harm than good – and charity becomes something of an empty endeavour.
Okoro’s frank opinion is likely one shared by many employers these days. “I see all these wonderful places, they’ve gone to China and built an orphanage, they’ve done this and done that. Okay, so your daddy is rich. That’s great. But when have you worked at JD Sports at the weekend to earn some money? When have you dealt with the public? They don’t care where you went to school,” she argued.
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It seems in some respects, many are losing perspective of the value of a job in retail or other customer-facing position. While recent research has suggested graduates don’t feel people skills are that important – businesses and employers certainly do, and their worth is evident on day-to-day dealings across all sectors and industries. This discordance in opinions could partly come down to our increasing reliance on technology – and it seamlessly filling the role of many duties that would’ve necessitated vocal or face-to-face communication before.
Working in a local shop may seem disjointed from students today – how does that relate to their future dream of running a tech startup or becoming a high-flying lawyer? The value of a weekend or holiday job could be encouraged at schools to address this misconception – the numerous skills you’d pick up from dealing with people working at JD Sports would stand students in good stead for all manner of opportunities in the workplace – whichever path they end up choosing.
It may seem too grandiose a statement to make, but encouraging most students who are considering a gap year to look towards a holiday job as a waiter or manning the tills at Sainsbury’s instead – or as well as – could do wonders for their appreciation of other employees who work in similar positions.
Not to mention the wide-ranging set of skills you actually need for these opportunities. Patience, good communication skills, tenacity and resilience are all built up here, so it’s not surprising Okoro looks for such experience on a CV – particularly if it’s becoming rarer.
Okoro herself worked a Saturday job at Marks & Spencer before heading to the City, and she pointed to the stark differences in background that can also mean people can’t afford a gap year in the first place and worry it sets them at a disadvantage.
“If you come from a background where things are a little bit more challenging financially, you can’t afford to take that gap year and do that. You’re thinking how am I going to pay those university fees.”
Here, the opportunity of working in retail as an option is one that could and should be encouraged.
“I’d like to see effort from the person. In the independent sector, there’s a lot of networking where you’re plugged into these things. It’s easier to go to China or to go and help in an orphanage. But what if you’re not plugged into that? Actually, spending a year working at JD Sports and maybe moving up to supervisor is just as significant and should be valued,” Okoro said.
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