GUEST COMMENT: Are career breaks more common since the credit crunch?

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Career breaks are a growing phenomenon in the financial sector, especially in sales and front-office areas of investment banking and global financial markets.

Even though Asia-Pacific is not where the brunt of the credit crisis is, the softening of the markets and a fall-off in deal flow here has resulted in some banks quietly staff letting go, in addition to taking a more cautious approach to hiring. For those who remain, many are putting their hands up and calling for time out.

"We've had a very good run in the last three years and I've been working 16-hour days for long stretches at a time. I really need a break," says a senior associate with a US bulge bracket. "Also, I don't think bonus will be great this year so there's not much to lose. I intend to travel a bit, catch up with friends and family and see how the situation is in six months."

Another banker in institutional bond sales comments: "A change from sales will be good. I've enough savings set aside for a break and there's not much market activity anyway. I'll probably want to head to business school or do something on my own."

Minimal opportunity costs, savings tucked away from recent bonuses and a desire for a new sense of fulfillment are motivating bankers to take a temporary step down from the career ladder.

Different ways of calling time out

The terms 'career break', 'sabbatical' and 'gap year' are often used to mean time off. While traditionally a gap year is taken between school and university, it's now becoming common to hear the term 'adult gap year' to describe employees taking 12 months off to volunteer abroad, work for social causes or just travel the world.

A sabbatical also traditionally lasted a year and was originally designed for academic staff to take time off for research. It stems from the word Sabbath because it was originally taken once every seven years. Now sabbaticals can mean paid or unpaid leave and they don't always last a year. If your company grants you a sabbatical, it usually means you will come back to the same job when it's over.

Career break is probably the most accepted term for time off work. It means the person is taking a break as a step or catalyst for a total career change. This can include embarking on further studies, or retraining and preparing for a change in career, eg a mechanical engineer takes a career break and enrolls in a wealth management institute to prepare himself for a career switch to private banking.

Why call for time out?

Rest, recuperation and relatives

Time out can also be taken for health reasons, whether physical or emotional. Long hours at work for extended periods are likely to lead to burnout. More often than not, the career breaker heads back to his or her work with fresh perspectives and ideas on how to do things better. Others take a break to care for a sick relative, spend more time with the family, or to help in a family business.

Carpe diem

Career breakers in this category have reached a stage in their lives where they realise "it is now or never" to fulfil a non-career related dream. Whether it's to travel the world, take a year off to enrol in art school overseas, do volunteer work, learn a language or train for a marathon, this yearning to fulfil a dream can put careers in the backseat.

Career metamorphosis

These people want to pursue work that they have a keen interest in and they undertake training or preparatory work to switch or adapt careers. This can include pursuing 'hobbyist careers', obtaining certification in a different area, or simply focusing on building skills (eg enrolling in an MBA to equip oneself for senior management roles in the organisation).

But what will new employers think?

The notion of a career break is not unheard of among financial employers in Asia-Pacific, though it is not as widely accepted as in the US and Europe. In the high pressured and fast-paced environment of banking, career breaks on a CV are not uncommon. The main factors potential employers will consider are:

Tenure of break

Generally speaking, a break of up to two years is acceptable (or if a training or study course runs to two and a half years, that's ok too). However, the longer the candidate is out of the market, the more changes in policies, procedures and technology will increase, so the value-add the candidate brings to the table decreases and erodes over time. Loss of contacts is also a major factor for financial jobs, especially for front-office and origination roles.

Frequency of break

A break every seven to 10 years is acceptable, but potential employers tend to frown upon CVs with a career break once every two to five years. Says an MD of an Asian-focused private equity outfit: "There are exceptions to the rule but the resilience and tenacity of the candidate would be suspect, even though the academics and outfits may be blue chip. Especially for a business like ours, focus and staying power are crucial traits."

An MD of a hedge fund adds: "I would look at when the breaks happen, where the candidate was in his career during the 'down' years of 1998 and 2001-02. The good ones tend to still be employed in a down market, so that gives me some indication of past performance."

Skills and experience acquired

Employers will focus on 'takeaways' from the career break: was the overall objective achieved? Were functional and soft skills acquired (leadership, planning skills, adaptability, tolerance, etc)? For example, traveling across the globe for six months takes considerable planning and execution skills, so that is a tick in the box for two competencies, if the career breaker can demonstrate them in an interview.

Before you go on sabbatical...

Keep in mind that a career break means you will eventually return to work, whether it is in the same area, a related role or a completely different career. Thus, staying in touch with developments, updates and contacts related to post-sabbatical work will be of primary importance. In addition, staying focused on achieving your personal objectives will be key. Above all, go with your heart and relish the break, believing it will prepare you for higher career journeys.

Angela Kuek is manager of the banking and financial services portfolio at Hudson Singapore. She specialises in front office and product specialist roles for corporate and investment banking, and transaction banking. An ex-banker and management consultant, she joined Hudson in March 2004.