This time last year, Joanne McKell was a busy Sydneysider, with a job as a PA to an investment banker and 50 pairs of high heels in her closet.
Now she’s teaching English in the heat of Cambodia, at a free school for children and young adults experiencing extreme poverty.
Like a growing number of Aussies, the 40-year-old is taking a career break, but hers may become a little longer than originally intended.
Looking for a change after 15 years in the investment banking industry, McKell last year enrolled in a TESOL (Teach English as a Second Language) course online and started searching for somewhere to volunteer her time.
She eventually decided on Feeding Dreams School in Siem Reap, and sprang into action.
“I just had to rent out my apartment back home and I booked a flight and arrived within the month,” she says.
“I was still arriving at the airport thinking, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’”
So far, McKell is four months in, but a sponsor recently offered to pay her a modest wage so she can continue volunteering for another six months.
“I was so nervous about coming here and doing something like this. In the end it’s just been the most fantastic thing,” she says.
Statistics from STA Travel show that ‘voluntourism’ is the fastest growing travel segment for Australians travelling overseas, with a 30 per cent spike last year.
Another company, Projects Abroad, which sends volunteers to 28 developing countries, has also seen an increase. It sent 850 volunteers from Australia and New Zealand on projects last year. Its oldest volunteer to date has been an 82-year-old from Adelaide.
At STA, many volunteers are in the 18 to 30 bracket. The company’s Natalie Placko-Thornton says there has been a significant spike in people taking career breaks generally.
“We’re definitely seeing that older, more mature person looking for that shorter gap experience – that’s everything from one to six months,” she says.
“We’re still getting that younger post high school or post-uni, but probably not as much as it used to be five or 10 years ago when it was more like a rite of passage.”
She says some younger travellers are waiting to save more money so they can travel in more style, while others feel they need to get a step on the career ladder before heading off.
Joe Bryant, a 32-year-old physiotherapist, took his second career break last year, spending eight months backpacking.
“I was working at a local hospital and needed to get out. It almost felt like the movie Groundhog Day,” says Bryant.
“I’d wake up, go to work, and see the same people, the same faces, over and over. Something needed to change.”
In his first career break in 2009, he checked out the east coast of the US and worked in a surf shop on Long Island. This time he began with two months surfing in Indonesia, before heading to South Africa, the US and Colombia.
Bryant says some of the high points included a boat trip in the Mentawai Islands and the wildlife and people of South Africa. Then there was New York and Colombia.
“I feel what Latin American is all about. It ticks all the boxes you could ever want,” he says.
After returning home in late December, Bryant got a kick out of running into one of his ex-colleagues at the hospital.
“Someone who knew me from work said how relaxed and happy I looked since returning from travels.”
He says after his first career break, he found it quite difficult to settle back into working life. This time it’s been easier, as he prepares to return to university to undertake a Bachelor of Indigenous Studies.
Karalyn Brown, founder of jobs consultancy InterviewIQ , warns that many employers are still risk averse, and a career break that hasn’t been explained properly could cost you a role.
“If you have a break and the employer compares you to someone who has not, and who has similar experience, you will be given second preference unless you are truly outstanding,” she says.
“Be positive about it, talk about what it is that you gained from that experience, if there’s a new perspective it’s given you.”
Careers advisor Tanaz Byramji, of Successful Resumes, agrees that those returning from a career break need to be mindful of the way they explain the period away.
“What we find is HR are not having a problem with the career break, as long as it’s explained and articulated clearly on a resume,” she says.
The biggest mistake people make is leaving a blank period of time on their CV, rather than addressing it upfront.
She suggests providing a number of dot points on your resume that explain what you gained from the experience (it could be communication skills or critical thinking for example) and how this will help you progress professionally.
A break also often helps people clarify their real career goals, and this should also be emphasised to a future employer, says Byramji.
As for volunteer McKell, she’s loving life doing something dramatically different, and has recently started helping organise the school’s volunteer program.
“I literally have not had a boring day,” she says.
McKell has been affected from seeing the conditions the kids live in. Once she saw a little boy whose fingers had welded together after he went outside to the go to the toilet during rainy season, and accidentally grabbed a live wire.
Other little ones just have no one to look after them.
“They make you smile every day,” says McKell. “Some of them have nothing yet they’re still so happy and highly enthusiastic and really want to learn.”
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