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parents and education

Toronto high-school graduate Joel King, 17, is pondering studying something arts related, or auto mechanics. In his year off, he is working and making the most of his bike.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

When Joel King graduated from Ursula Franklin Academy in Toronto earlier this year, the 17-year-old decided to take a gap year before continuing his education, mainly because he really didn't know what he wanted to do next.

He considered something arts related, having focused on visual arts, film and photography in high school, but thinks he might also like to study auto mechanics. So meanwhile, he is making soap at the Lush factory in Toronto.

While he is saving some money for university or college, a trip to Japan with friends might also be in his plans so he can check out some of the big auto makers.

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"It didn't make sense to spend money on school when I wasn't sure what I wanted to do in life, or even for another year," says Mr. King. "I'm not learning a lot about auto mechanics, but I am learning about what it's like to be a working person five days a week."

That might make a lot of Canadian parents nervous, but Mr. King's mother, Laurie King, a Toronto chiropractor, was fine with it, considering she took off two years herself before going to university.

"My mom was definitely supportive," says Mr. King. "She told me to look for a job while I try to figure out what I want to do and we talked about options for the different careers that I'm interested in."

While taking a year off between high school and college or university is a rite of passage for many across Britain and Europe, Australia and New Zealand, gap years are just beginning to catch on in Canada. Increasingly Canadian universities, such as York in Toronto, allow admitted students to defer their acceptance to take a gap year, but some universities may also require that students reapply when their year is up.

The motivations to delay postsecondary education for a year range from financial need to acquiring experience.

Typically, students choose to spend their gap year working, travelling, studying or volunteering, often in combination and frequently abroad to gain international experience and sharpen additional language skills – an advantage in Canada's multicultural workplace environment.

Some do it on their own while others may go through one of many gap-year planning companies that can help them program their year.

Although parents here may worry a gap year could disadvantage their children's education and careers, according to the Canadian Council of Learning, students are 8 per cent more likely to find employment after graduation if they took a gap year. Other research, such as a 2008 study co-written by the Canadian Education Project, a Toronto-based education policy and research association, suggests students are less likely to change career paths once they return to school.

"Taking a year out helps kids become more focused on what they want to do and to discover what their skills and passions are," says Katie Idle, director of sales and marketing for Vancouver-based, Study and Go Abroad, an education-based event organizer and travel fair. "They're more likely then to pick the right courses and more likely to graduate."

Lauren Friese, founder of TalentEgg, an online resource and job board for students and recent graduates, says it is wishful thinking that we all make the transition from youth to adulthood at the same time.

"The idea that a 17- or 18-year-old has the presence of mind and maturity to make a decision about what they want to do when they grow up is a broad assumption," says Ms. Friese. "There's increasing pressure on young people to have made the right choice because employers favour students who have done co-ops or have chosen certain programs or schools. So it's better to take that extra year if you need it to build your maturity and a better framework for making career decisions that will pay off in the future."

Ms. Friese believes that just being exposed to the workplace, in whatever industry, can be an advantage for millennials or younger generations, who are often accused of having unrealistic expectations of the workplace.

"You can help to curb that impression by getting work exposure and proving that you know how to behave in a workplace," says Ms. Friese. "It's about understanding work culture and showing up on time. Everything that reduces the risk for the recruiter that you're going to fail in the job makes you more hirable."

Norah McRae, executive director of co-operative education and career services at the University of Victoria, encourages taking a gap year but warns that not all gap years are created equal. She advises that students have a mentor to help them reflect and strategize on the experience before, during and after.

Students need to identify what they are going to do in that gap year, how it will relate to what they are interested in, how it is going to expose them to experiences where they can develop different capabilities and experience different lifestyles.

"It could be a parent or a friend who helps that young person make sense of it, not something you're spending thousands of dollars on," says Dr. McRae. "If you don't have someone helping the student process it, you can end up behind rather than ahead. You can go off and have this wonderful backpacking experience through Europe and be exposed to interesting people and cultures, but if you don't know how to navigate that, you could also wander around from train station to train station and not learn a darn thing, except how to read train tables."

She also addresses the fear parents have that their children may never go back to school, but says studies show that is not the case. The application and achievement rates for "gappers" are the same as those who didn't do a gap year, especially for those who were weaker in their high-school performance.

"If you have a successful gap year, it can lead to improved motivation, I think because you've got a broader world view," says Dr. McRae. "You've tried something different and been successful in that, you've explored those deeper questions about the purpose you have here and what you want to be doing with your life. You may not have all the answers – it's only one year – but you have a better idea now that maybe it's in the social sciences or fine arts."

Mr. King is optimistic that his gap year will help him mature a bit more as a person. He has already decided he's more of a hands-on person than someone who could sit in a cubicle all day doing statistics.

"Working gives you a different perspective on life, as opposed to just going to school every day," he says. "You get to talk with people who've had different experiences and have been working for quite a while. It's given me a different view."