Modern Student Dilemmas: Work Experience or Gap Year?<span class="wtr-time-wrap after-title"><span class="wtr-time-number">6</span> min read</span>

Megan McMahon
Megan McMahon

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Opinion Piece Written By Megan McMahon, The Grand Student Survey Team

A decision each round of graduating students is faced with, but what is really the best option?

There is nothing wrong with a gap year. It’s a chance to stop and breathe after 12 years of schooling and to finally think about where one is going. But, the question remains, what would happen if work experience were easier to come by? Would fewer students take the gap year and go straight into tertiary education; or would they take the break anyway, but with a clearer, more achievable goal in mind?

The problem is that in Australia, the variety and amount of work experience for school-aged students is limited, which leaves graduating students with little to no idea of what the possible career options are, and how they are supposed to get there. This is one of the reasons as to why gap years are seen as a plausible option for students who don’t have a clear direction after graduation; working for a year can supply young adults with more life skills than anything in high school can. While this is far from being a bad option, the Australian school system can do better.

The state of work experience in Australia

Despite Australia’s reputation as ‘the lucky country’, this idea is seriously lacking in the education system. A recent study completed by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), ranked Australia’s quality of education at 39 out of the 41 nations included in the study. Would having more opportunities for work experience help Australia improve their ranking?

In Finland, the top ranking country in the study, upper secondary students choose whether they continue on an academic pathway, focusing on preparations for the university, or if they want to receive training to develop vocational competence. This option leaves them better prepared for the workforce, and life after high school, as well as allowing them to get more of a feel for what career path they would most enjoy and be best suited to. It would also leave them better prepared and more capable of finding work straight out of school if that were the intention. This in Australia, is a lot harder to come by; and that needs to change.

The Foundation of Young Australians (FYA) hypothesized that by 2030, workers will be spending at least 30% more of their workday learning than today’s workers do. The FYA report states, “Today’s young people will need to spend more hours learning on the job than ever before… continuous learning will be part of our everyday engagement in work.”

If Australia were to follow this approach, not only would graduating students have more experience in the workforce, but it would also greatly benefit Australia’s education system. Students would be using their classroom skills in real work environments, allowing them to excel in their own way, and find a purpose for their learning.

Where ‘gap years’ fit in

Gap years tend to have a reputation of dragging students away from their studies, with the older generation often suggesting that a year off will leave students unmotivated and uninspired. This notion, confirmed by Bob Clagett, the Dean of Admissions at Middlebury College in America says, “the prevailing wisdom is that kids are going to lose their hard-earned study skills if they take a gap year”. However, Clagett wholeheartedly disagreed with this belief, saying that “[taking a gap year can] lead to a much more productive experience once they are enrolled in college since those students will frequently be more mature, more focused, and more aware of what they want to do with their college education.”

Middlebury College isn’t the only educational institution in favour students taking a gap year. In fact, there is a long list of prestigious schools such as Harvard University, Princeton University and Columbia University that also support the idea of gap years.

Furthermore, a study referenced in The Australian found that out of 5000 Australian students graduating in 2005, of 2900 that had planned on going to university, almost 700 students had not done so by the time they were 23. However, out of 1500 who did not have any set plan for after school, approximately 700 students had enrolled in university by 2010. Another 180 students enrolled after planning to work, doing an apprenticeship or partaking in other kinds of vocational training.

John Ross, the author of the article, summarized the evidence, stating that a post-school stint of work and travelling is more likely to encourage young people to go to university than turn them off the idea, “This study helps prove that a gap year does not demotivate students from returning to their studies. It also affirms that just because a student intends on going to university, does not mean that all will go according to plan.”

So which is optimal?

Students take gap years for a number of reasons: to work to save money, to travel, to rest and to figure out their next step. Sometimes gap years are part of the plan, and sometimes they are used as the chance to come up with the plan.

Work experience would help greatly with the students who struggle with direction, those who have passion but don’t know how to use or channel it. Work experience is the key. It is the only way that students can get a feel for their desired workplace environments before they graduate, and give them something to work towards through the rest of their student careers.

The final decision is really left to each individual student and their individual needs. Do they need to formulate direction early-on with the help of work experience? Do they need a chance to breathe and find the way they want to go? Or, do they make the best of both possibilities and work it out from there?

Both have their pros and cons, but the question will always remain; which is the best option for you?