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Bridging the Gap From School to Work

By Amy MacMillan

Traditionally, college graduation meant it was time to hit the employment trail. But, what if you're not ready yet, and the big wide world is beckoning you? It's the best time to strike off on your own, say some graduates who have followed an "untraditional" career path.

"Once you do have a house and you are married, you can't just wander around the country." - Steve Hurlock

As graduation approaches, you've probably already thought about hunkering down to start your career, but have you considered taking time off first? Grads who have taken time off-whether planned or unplanned-can reap some benefits before they march out into the real world. The term "finding yourself" may cause your parents' eyes to roll but it's truly a time to explore interests and opportunities.

Kevin Rivers, who graduated from The University of the South with a degree in economics, chose to travel instead of pursuing a career immediately. He moved to Flagstaff, Ariz. with a few college buddies, where he picked up a telemarketing stint to make ends meet. He planned to have just a year of fun before settling down, but a friend invited him along for some work traveling this fall. Now, Rivers has moved back home to wait tables and save money for the trip-which will take him to Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

"I couldn't really pass up this opportunity to go to this many places. When I get back, I will have had one of the greatest trips of a lifetime," he says. And, when he comes back, he'll buckle down and start the "real" job search.

A real world delay has its highs and lows, but those who follow this route-whether it's immediately after graduation like Rivers, or a year or two later-say they don't regret it.

Steve Hurlock, 32, tried out the real world as soon as he graduated with a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1991, only to quit and join a band full time a year later. When he graduated, the economy was in a recession, and Hurlock took his first job offer-programming for a scientific consulting company in the Philadelphia area. "I felt lucky to find a job," he remembers.

On the side, he worked as a "sound man" for a local band. When the band asked him to be their bass player, he took the position as a part-time gig, and kept his day job. When the band moved to Boulder, Colo., in search of a "better music scene," Hurlock quit his job altogether and moved West. He couldn't find another engineering position in Boulder, but to pay rent, he secured a job at a bakery and worked other odd jobs that enabled him to eventually tour for weeks at a time with the band.

One of the potential consequences of taking time off is explaining gaps in your resume to future employers. How you spend your time off will make a difference, says Kent Kirch, associate national director of recruiting at Deloitte & Touche. For instance, world travel can give you the confidence and polish that any future employer will value. "It might be perceived differently to take a year off and work at the video store," Kirch says.

Time off can be further focused if grads take initiative to plan ahead for their eventual employment, he adds. Some companies are even flexible about start dates. "You might be able to line up a position-instead of two or three months after graduation-six months after graduation," he says.

As with Allison Travers, 28, a few years in the professional world immediately following graduation can help pull plans together for you. Travers, a 1994 college graduate, worked for two years in media relations and saved some cash before she fulfilled a lifelong dream to teach skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyo. She stayed year-round in the resort town, where she worked as a nanny and a waitress during the off-seasons.

"It was the best thing I ever did," says the Newton, Mass. native. "I met some amazing people, and it's helped me in so many ways." The self-assurance she gained by relocating to another state inspired her to tour Europe alone for three weeks last spring. "For me, it was confidence-building and it gave me a lot of independence."

She says her first job after college gave her an edge when it was time to find a real job once again. She moved to Portland, Maine, working for, an online adventure travel company.

While self-reliance may be a benefit of a short-term relocation, there are financial consequences of taking time off away your professional life. Hurlock learned this the hard way, when he failed to keep current on his school loans-a "huge, huge mistake," he says. "When you are young, you don't think about what a credit rating will do for you."

Life on the road with the band had begun to wear on Hurlock by the time he reached his mid-twenties. So, when he quit the band, he contacted Unisys in Philadelphia, the company where he had done his college co-op. They offered him a position, and he moved back East.

He's still with the company, working as a senior hardware engineer. Although he's thrilled with where he's at, he's still occasionally wistful for his old life on the stage. But, "It turned out better than I could have hoped for that I was somehow back at this job," he says.

Rivers says he's not worried about picking up his career path when he returns from his world travels. "I will tell employers that I was young, and there were things I wanted to do before I started working. I did well in school, so I'm not too concerned about it. I've talked to other professionals who says it's good to get it out of my system now," he says.

Those who have been there agree.

"Don't be afraid to do it," Travers tells college grads. "Very few of my friends did what I did. They are now pretty advanced in their careers, but I wouldn't change a thing. It's a scary thing to do, but it's the best thing I ever did."

Hurlock echoes her: "It's really good to get some diverse experience before you settle down for the long haul. Once you do have a house and you are married, you can't just wander around the country."

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