When accountant Maggie Kelly announced she was going to work with the Peace Corps in Mongolia, she expected jaws to drop.
Instead, her bosses at the Price Waterhouse accounting firm in Costa Mesa, Calif., offered her a job when she returned.
Could it be they were impressed that she would be helping Mongolian villagers run small businesses during her two-year stint in Asia? Maybe the firm just valued her auditing skills. Ms. Kelly doesn't know. But the reaction surprised her.
"Here I was ready to check out of the whole [business] thing," said Ms. Kelly, 32. "And suddenly it's like, hey, this really isn't going to look bad on my resume."
As U.S. companies strive to remain competitive in the global marketplace, unconventional career moves like Ms. Kelly's are starting to make a lot more sense, experts say.
Ten years ago, running off to pursue a dream of working abroad probably would have been viewed as flaky. But today, smart business leaders are realizing they can turn that experience to their benefit.
"International experience and the acquisition of international skills, like language and cultural knowledge, is definitely becoming more highly valued by American companies," said Richard Drobnick, director of the International Business Education and Research center and a business professor at the University of Southern California.
At the same time, a crop of twenty- to thirtysomethings are facing a world where traditional paths to comfortable middle-class life and the American dream are rapidly being eliminated. Early retirees and displaced managers are searching for meaningful work to replace their former positions. Gone is the myth of job security or guaranteed promotions and salary increases just because you do your work.
As a result, more people are starting to step back, take a hard look at the 9-to-5 grind and try to find a way to make their lives more rewarding, says Alex Hiam, a Massachusetts-based consultant. In "Adventure Careers," a book he co-wrote with Susan Angle to be published by Career Press in September, Mr. Hiam recommends that the best way to ensure that you have the experiences you want in life is by not relying on your employer to provide them.
Want to restore houses in Czechoslovakia? Do it. Take time off to work with disabled children in Russia? Do it. Sail around the world and study exotic birds? Do it.
"Today you build your own path," said Mr. Hiam, who worked as a journalist and helped found a biotechnology company before he became an author. "Instead of a career ladder, you're on a career jungle gym."
This new strategy is necessitated by the failure of traditional management, he adds. Under the old model, what mattered was putting in your time and coming up through the ranks. Now, there is more emphasis on teamwork and problem solving.
"We're just beginning to see companies redefine what a qualified person is," Mr. Hiam said. "Once they do, we're going to see demand for people with varied and unusual backgrounds, because they can bring creativity and insight and maturity to a job that other candidates can't."
That many people are seeking a globally diverse background is reflected in calls about overseas jobs and inquiries at service organizations such as the Peace Corps. At the Los Angeles office of the Peace Corps, applications are up 30 percent so far this year.
In part, it is because of the recession and people not being able to find jobs, said spokeswoman JoAnne Townsend. But it also reflects increased interest related to the Peace Corps now sending volunteers to the Baltics and Eastern Europe.
"I think that has attracted more volunteers, because it's not the traditional idea of the Peace Corps," she said.
Unlike programs in Third World countries in Africa and Latin America, which typically emphasize health education, teaching and farming skills, the Eastern European positions demand business knowledge and experience.
Programs developed by universities to send qualified volunteers over to help Eastern bloc countries develop businesses are equally popular. At the University of California, Irvine, MBAs train Hungarian managers in U.S. business practices.
People often take the career risk because it's the only way to get hands-on experience. Former financial analyst Dennis Walker, 31, headed for Bali after getting his MBA from UCI to supervise the manufacture of silver jewelry.
Going on your own also is often better than waiting for your corporation to send you, since competition for overseas slots is only getting tougher. Price Waterhouse and other accounting firms, for example, send employees on foreign assignments, but the process is very selective and can take years.
"I pursued that those channels first," Ms. Kelly said, "but it wasn't looking like it was going to happen any time soon."
Nor will everyone who goes to teach in Nepal, work on a kibbutz in Israel or volunteer to play baseball for peace in Nicaragua come back to find corporate America waiting with open arms.