Observing an Australian hostel in the morning is a window into another world. A surprising number of people will be up early, shovelling down cereal or cooking the ubiquitous two-minute noodles. The expected uniform of shorts and T-shirts is missing though — it’s all cheap black trousers, scratchy white shirts and bargain basement ties. They’re off to work, job interviews or training courses — a necessity for restoring their bank balances if they are to resume travelling later in the year. Almost all will have the Subclass 417 visa, which has kept a conveyor belt of young working holidaymakers coming through Australia since 1975.
Back then around 2,000 visas a year were granted. Despite forecasts the number of gap years being taken would fall due to higher university fees, in the 12 months up to June 2013, Australia granted 46,131 working holiday visas to British citizens alone, a 10.6% increase on the previous year.
There’s more than a little irony to the phrase ‘working holiday’, given that many of the people applying for it are doing so with the clear goal of avoiding work for a while. On 10 September 2001, that certainly applied to one kid fresh out of university, landing at Sydney airport for the first time.
I’d no idea what I wanted to do with my life and was motivated by little more than a strong desire not to sit through endless council meetings as a reporter for a local paper. The working holiday — essentially going to Australia for a year and making things up as I went along — was a way of delaying the onset of real life.
It’s fair to say it dramatically altered the course of my life too. I ended up talking my way into a job at a magazine for backpackers as a graphic designer and — eventually — editing the thing. That job kept me in Australia until 2006, way beyond the remit of the initial visa. The working holiday turned into sponsorship to stay, temporary work into an accidental career. Things changed for friends in similar ways, and many of them are still out there.
Heading Down Under
No two working holidaymakers have exactly the same story, but many follow a similar path. In 2007 Karen Steadman, from Walthamstow, had recently finished a master’s degree, and planned to spend a few months in Southeast Asia before visiting her brother in Australia. “I’d never worked in another country before, so I decided I might as well get the working holiday visa and have a go at finding a job there for a few months,” says Karen. “By the time I arrived, I had spent all my savings — and I didn’t relish the prospect of going home broke, being stuck at my parents’ for months on end.”
She’d been working in local government in the UK, and found it surprisingly easy to get work in Australia. “I went to a job agency, told them the line of work I hoped to get into with my master’s, and was signed up as a temp at New South Wales Health.” A key factor in her staying — she eventually got citizenship, before returning to the UK in 2012 — was the pay. “I was soon earning much more than I would have been in the UK — especially when the recession hit.”
This is one aspect of working holidays in Australia that has changed significantly over the years. In 2001, with roughly three Australian dollars to the pound, it was a relatively cheap place to travel. Now, with a pound worth approximately A$1.80 and a soaring cost of living, Australia is expensive by just about any other country’s standards. Travel agents selling flight tickets to working holidaymakers report, anecdotally, people are planning on spending longer periods in inexpensive Southeast Asia on the way and less time in Australia itself.
There’s also a greater emphasis on saving cash more quickly. Australia’s minimum wage is currently $16.37 (just under £9) an hour and, providing it’s not generously donated to grateful pub-owners, money accumulates fairly quickly. Although applicants still have to be between 18 and 30 (inclusive) at the time of application, changes to the visa scheme have led to fewer restrictions on work. Before 2006, visa-holders weren’t allowed to work for any one employer for more than three months — which effectively limited people to unskilled, temporary jobs requiring little training. Despite the bar-work stereotype, this often translated to telesales in a call centre or labouring on a construction site. It’s now no more than six months with one employer, which opens the door to more skilled (and better paid) work.
In 2005, another key change was made. The Australian government decided the working holiday visa scheme was a good way of filling largely unwanted but necessary jobs in rural areas. So the incentive of a second year’s working holiday visa was offered to anyone willing to do three months of ‘specified work’ in ‘regional Australia’. For most, that translates as deeply unglamorous fruit-picking — but the mining and construction industries are taking on their fair share of working holidaymakers, too. The latest figures show a significant increase in the number of Brits taking up that second visa — a total of 7,349 second working holiday visas were granted for the 12-month period ending June 2013.
This has coincided with the rise of the career break. Laurence Bresh, marketing director of youth travel specialist STA Travel, says the company has seen a 20% rise in online searches for sabbaticals. “Young professionals in their late twenties, who might well have already taken a gap year post-uni, are one of the key groups looking to take a sabbatical of usually three or four months on average,” he says. “More than half plan to include some sort of work during their travels or a volunteering project.”
Gabriella Brunton, originally from Kent and now working in PR in London, has recently returned from her sabbatical year. After three years working for Fortnum & Mason, a combination of wanderlust and a desire to challenge herself saw her head to Australia. Those challenges included unexpected struggles to find work. “I think a trap people fall into is thinking, ‘Well, I’ve worked in London so it’ll be easy,’ but the job market is as competitive as in the UK,” she says. “I had to share a bed with a friend for six weeks in Melbourne while saving up for a deposit to rent a flat.”
It’s a common error — unless work is set up through agencies in advance, it can take a few weeks to find, especially during the peak times of November and December. But she thinks the experience has changed her for the better. “The perspective and objectivity you gain from working abroad and trying different industries is invaluable,” she says. “As you’re away from everyone, you can think about what YOU really want. That sounds quite selfish, but I hope I’m the best version of myself now for having done it all.”
Australia is by far the most popular destination for working holidays, but the UK also has agreements with Japan, Taiwan, Canada and New Zealand. Of these, New Zealand’s scheme is the most generous, with half an eye on encouraging permanent migration. People between the ages of 18 and 30 can stay for up to 23 months, working for one employer for up to a year. Wages are lower than in Australia, but the looser restrictions mean employers are less put off by the thought of training a temporary contract worker.
Taiwan’s programme is still in its infancy — it only launched in 2012 — and language barriers tend to restrict employment in Japan to English teaching and working in ski resorts focused on an international clientele. In Canada, the key limitation is the number of visas issued — a quota is set, with recent years seeing just over 5,000 being given to UK applicants annually.
Last year, Ndrika Anyika from Sheffield was one of the lucky few, ending up working on the front desk of a ski resort hotel and spending two months at an animal sanctuary at the base of the Rocky Mountains. She believes that was a result of taking a serendipitous approach to the working holiday. “I would advise people to know a few things they really want to do before they set off — but never over-plan,” she says. “You need to go with the flow, otherwise you might miss out on some great opportunities.”
South of the border, the US doesn’t issue the same sort of working holiday visa, but it does offer J1 Summer Work Travel visas to students and those who’ve just graduated.
They’re valid between June and September, and are designed to help employers in the hospitality and tourism industries fill extra vacancies in their busiest season. The jobs are usually in holiday destinations such as hotels and theme parks.
Hollie Brooks, marketing manager of BUNAC, which has helped place British students in US summer jobs since 1962, says it has become a more rigidly organised process over the years. “In the early decades, it was common to hop on a plane and worry about finding a job on arrival, whereas nowadays, young people are opting for a more structured ‘mini gap’ experience,” says Brooks. Most arrange placements in advance, having phone or Skype interviews beforehand.
Shawnice Lynn, 21, from Sunderland, used BUNAC’s service to fire off CVs to prospective employers and ended up working at a candy store in Ocean City, Maryland. She used the days and evenings cutting fudge as a way of saving up for travelling — firstly day trips to the surrounding states, then Las Vegas, San Francisco and New York.
“I never thought I’d ever be able to experience the sights I saw at such a young age,” she says. “It wasn’t just a ‘trip’ for me — it became so much more and I feel very privileged. I’ve gained so much confidence and I feel if there is anything I want in life, I can go out and achieve it.”
Confidence is a recurring theme among those who’ve taken working holidays — and it rings true with my experience too. It’s a giant leap into the unknown that makes subsequent leaps seem far less daunting. Hidden abilities to adapt, improvise and work things out independently are forced out — and then stay for life. But it’s not an identikit experience — and the evolution of working holiday visa programmes is taking it way beyond the traditional 18-to-21 heartland.
STA Travel: Gap year travel specialists. statravel.co.uk
BUNAC: Work and volunteering placements in multiple countries. bunac.org.uk
Real Gap: Organises work placements and working holiday trips to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. realgap.co.uk
Work and Travel Company: Working holiday-focused job and training course agency in Australia. worktravelcompany.com
Work New Zealand: New Zealand agency for working holidaymakers. worknewzealand.org.nz
Ski Japan: English language ski resort placements in Japan. skijapan.com
Each programme has different criteria — all of which are listed on the respective website.
New Zealand: immigration.govt.nz/migrant/stream/work/workingholiday
Published in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)