A Traveler In The Foreign Service: What’s It Like To Work In The Foreign Commercial Service?

Janice Corbett has been a diplomat for more than 21 years. She has lived in South Korea, Spain, Ecuador, Brazil and Canada. She’s on a first name basis with several heads of state and has even met the King and Queen of Spain. Her lifestyle of international travel and adventure started in Cleveland, Ohio, of all places.

After getting an M.B.A., the Washington, D.C., native landed a job as a trade specialist at the U.S. Export Assistance Center in Cleveland and that led her to a career in the Department of Commerce’s Foreign Commercial Service. The United States and Foreign Commercial Service (USFCS) is one of four official Foreign Affairs Agencies employing some 1,400 trade professionals here and abroad and since we’ve talked to diplomats from State, USAID and USDA, plus a diplomatic courier, I thought it was high time we hear from someone at Commerce.

Janice Corbett is the Regional Director for Africa, the Near East, and South Asia (ANESA) with the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service in Washington, with responsibility for 18 countries in a diverse region bounded by Morocco, South Africa, India, and Afghanistan. She is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Counselor.

Prior to her assignment in ANESA, Janice served as the U.S. Commercial Service Liaison to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) where she assisted U.S. manufacturers to expand into new export markets. We caught up with Janice to find out about what it’s like to work in the Foreign Commercial Service.Why did you join the Foreign Service?

It was a dream that started when I was 16. I went to school in Southern France and I really loved the culture and loved learning how things work in different countries. I realized I had a knack for being in foreign environments and then as part of our exchange, we went to Paris, where I met a friend of a friend’s father, who was an economics officer at the U.S. Embassy and that solidified what I wanted to do.

How did you pursue that goal?

I earned a B.A. in International Studies from Miami University in Ohio and I earned an M.B.A. in marketing.

Why did you choose to pursue employment with the Department of Commerce, as opposed to State, USAID or one of the other foreign affairs agencies?

I thought there would be more opportunities in business and also I figured I could hedge my bet. If I couldn’t get into government, I could always go into business. I also saw the trend at the time. Commercial diplomacy was growing and trade was growing in importance. So it seemed like a timely thing to do.

How did you get the job?

I started at the U.S. Export Assistance Center in Cleveland, Ohio as a trade specialist. The U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service has U.S. offices and foreign offices. In the U.S. offices, trade specialists counsel U.S. companies, help them locate markets for their products and are challenged to find companies who may not be exporting and help them understand the rationale and advantages of exporting. And then we work with our colleagues in overseas offices to help them enter foreign markets.

And how did you transition into the Foreign Service?

I applied for the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service exam. After being accepted, I took the U.S. and Foreign Service exam, which is a full-day oral and written exam. After I passed the exam, I was put on a wait list. In the meantime, I had applied for a temporary, limited appointment overseas, and was assigned to Korea for two years. While working as the Assistant Commercial Attaché in Seoul, I was pulled up on the list and was converted into the Foreign Service.

Is the process different now? Can anyone take the exam?

The applicant completes an initial online assessment, and if they pass, they take an in-person written and oral assessment. It’s equivalent to the State Department’s Oral Assessment. You need three years of specialized trade promotion experience, and a Bachelor’s degree.

We also have internships, so if students want to get experience, it would behoove them to apply for an internshipwith the Foreign Commercial Service.

Any other advice for people who want this job?

First of all, have a knack for languages. Study business and get as much experience as you can. And if you don’t get it the first time, keep trying.

At the State Department, FSOs start their careers in an introductory class called A-100, did you have something like that?

No. I landed and was assigned to manage a trade mission in Korea right away. However now the incoming officers have a very complete new officer training course.

Do Foreign Commercial Service Officers get paid language training?

Yes. I speak Spanish and Portuguese.

You served in South Korea, Spain, Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil and Canada. What is the bidding process like?

You have to submit bids on four jobs at your grade level along with a rationale of why you are bidding on that post and what you can offer the Service in those places. Generally, as junior officers our tours are 2 years and then 3-4 thereafter.

And are there directed assignments at Commerce, where FSOs are sent to a post they have not bid on?

It’s very rare.

But do FSOs from Commerce serve in Iraq and other war zones?

We serve where there are growth economies. We have postings in Iraq and other unaccompanied posts. We have officers in Baghdad now but not in Kabul. I’m single so all my postings are unaccompanied.

Tell us about some of the travel opportunities this career has given you over the years?

I traveled throughout Korea and I never would have had a chance to do that. I would never have known about theRoyal Asiatic Society, where I learned all Korea’s culture and history. I went to the Amazon in Brazil three times. We took a trade mission to the free trade zone in Manaus. I traveled throughout Brazil. It’s a fascinating country. There is so much to see and do in Spain, so when I was posted there, I traveled all over the country and was also fortunate to meet the King and Queen of Spain.

How did that happen?

I was the control officer for a delegation that came into town. It was an official meeting and we went to the palace and we were told what the protocol would be. The King and Queen came through the greeting line and greeted each one of us.

What are you supposed to do?

Bow and shake their hands.

What kind of people do you think thrive in this career?

People who like travel. People who like to work in international environments, manage people from different cultures. People who are curious about how things work in different countries. People who are open to learning and listening. People who get a thrill from helping U.S. companies. If you talk to people in the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service, the most satisfying part of the job is how we help American companies.

Are you helping everyone from really small businesses to big multinationals?

Correct. I’ve helped very small businesses get started in Mexico, Canada and other places and I’ve helped major multinationals get into markets as well. We not only help companies in an export capacity, we also help them reduce trade and regulatory barriers. We provide on the ground market intelligence. And we will weigh in with foreign governments to show them the advantage of using U.S. products and services.

It’s illegal for American companies to use bribes overseas but in many developing countries that is how companies do business. How do you help companies abide by the law but still get things done?

You meet with government officials and you talk about transparency. You talk about the advantages of U.S. products and services and then government officials know that we are watching those transactions.

What do you like about this job?

Every day is different. You are constantly being introduced to new things, new ways of doing business. I’ve met presidents of countries; in some cases, we’ve been on a first-name basis because I worked on so many issues with them. You’re dealing with ministers and other very high level people to get U.S. policy accomplished or to make sure there isn’t a trade barrier blocking a product entry, and also persuading them to procure U.S. products.

And what is the hardest part of this career choice? Being away from family and friends in the States?

That is the hardest part. I had to miss my nephew’s high school graduation because I had a secretarial visit to Mexico. I missed my brother’s retirement from the Navy because I was overseas. Also, it’s difficult when you have aging parents. I was living in Mexico when my parent’s health was failing, so I had to travel back once a quarter to take care of personal matters.

What other things have you enjoyed about the Foreign Service lifestyle?

I feel like I’ve grown as a person because of it. I’ve learned about different artists that I never would have known about. Literature, cultures. I danced in Carnival in Rio. I never would have done that if I hadn’t joined the Foreign Service. It’s an incredible career.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service

[Photo credit: Department of Commerce]