"How can you get experience without someone hiring you?
A lot of people would love to earn a living from the great outdoors, whether as a climbing instructor, a kayak god or an expedition leader extraordinaire. The main problem is how to get started as there are so many barriers put in the way of getting that first precious job.
Career development is limited in two different ways; most companies aren't willing to take the plunge to be the first ones to hire you and then once you finally get a qualification you discover you can only work in certain seasons! I have heard of people working in the UK in the summer, and then spending a few weeks in Ireland followed by a few weeks in Europe to extend their season but most people struggle with that lifestyle. What on earth do you do in the winter? In my case I started off in the Gap Year market. This is equally complicated even though it is all overseas! No one wants to be the first to hire you and they all say they want someone with experience leading groups, experience of the country and a working knowledge of the language.
The last two are possible to do solo but the first one is the classic Gap 22. How can you get experience without someone hiring you? There are several companies that take on assistant expedition leaders and this is probably the best way to start off. You will often have your flights; food and accommodation paid for but receive no salary. To be quite honest its still a pretty good deal as you share very little of the burdens of responsibility and are therefore paid to go on holiday whilst learning a trade. If you get offered a job my advice would be to ask the company employing you to book your return flight a few weeks after the expedition finishes (which most are willing to do) so that you can explore more of the country, or maybe even one of the neighbouring ones, on your own!
That extra bit of independent travel automatically improves your job prospects by providing you with extra in-country experience! If you're in Peru, why not visit Bolivia for example! The next rung in the ladder is the famed Mountain Leader Award. This is something I found difficult to finalise over the years, not because I found it difficult to do, but because I had several hundred international days of experience versus 30 UK ones. Much to my annoyance the international days did not count towards the qualification. It took me 2 years from training to assessment to complete the UK days so some of my original logged days are from many moons ago. On the other hand the Summer ML is an almost instant pass to an expedition job; it is the industry benchmark and whilst not actually having any legal standing abroad it shows the company that you are not a complete moron and that someone else has willingly assessed and passed you on your ability in the outdoors, thus removing any liability from them! Now whether you go ML or work as an assistant for a while, the problem is keeping everything together financially.
The biggest gap companies pay a decent enough wage, anything from 600 pounds up to 2,700 pounds for a months work (depending on qualifications, experience and the company itself). The best companies to work for will pay your flights, food and accommodation. Unfortunately there busy time is during the summer holidays, June till September. This overlaps nicely with the only time you can really make the most of your ML in the UK! So what do you do for the rest of the year? There are other companies out there my friends! All is not lost! The long term gap programs are the market to hit. Volunteer projects combined with language lessons and adventure travel. I've worked on trips that have lasted 14 weeks! The pay is obviously much less on a pro-rata basis than the shorter trips and you can expect to rake in a few thousand for your troubles, but with my only expense being beer, chocolate and a constant supply of new flip flops, it isn't the end of the world.
It enabled me to do a lot of things that I wouldn't have been able to afford; even on a higher salary. On one of my recent expeditions I completed the following activities in 6 weeks: trekked in and out of the second deepest canyon in the world; rode horses in the driest desert in the world; sand boarded in the second driest desert in the world; stood in the driest valley on earth; crossed the worlds largest salt flats, numerous high altitude treks, machu pichu and the Inca trail; white water rafting; 3,600 meter downhill mountain biking on the worlds most dangerous road; ice climbing; mountain climbing; dune buggying; to name but a few. I did not pay for any of these activities! Obviously a lot of them I was the one with all the responsibility; had something gone wrong it would have been my head for the axe, however other events were managed by third party providers.
This allows me to relax a wee bit, safe in the knowledge that the company has checked out these people in advance and felt comfortable using them, but obviously you must never switch off completely after all, accidents happen! So, with long term gap years you could find contracts from January till April, maybe another from April till June, two short summer expeditions from July to August and then use September to December together get more qualifications or stay abroad gaining experience and the high life! Coincidentally its when all the companies hold their training and selection events so can start planning for the following year!
Maybe the Gap 22 isn't that bad a life after all I'll never be rich but at least Id rather be a poor man on a mountain in the sun than a bored man in an office! I'll finish with a quote from the operations director of a gap year company As good as qualifications are, personal travel and language skills are infinitely more valuable. ML is fine but I want to see that someone has missed a bus in the middle of the Andes and sorted out another one; that their hostel was double booked and they found somewhere else to sleep; that they aren't just a mindless robot!.
There you have it guys, get travelling!