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]

Foreign visitor travel spending over $100 billion in United States

Visitors from outside the United States brought close to $12 billion with them in October, making it the tenth month in a row that spending by this group grew year over year. On average this year, total travel and tourism exports have increased $1.4 billion a month. People are visiting us again!

According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, travel– and tourism-related exports reached $11.9 billion in October 2010, an 18 percent ($1.8 billion) gain relative to October 2009. The money foreign visitors spent on fares surged $709 million to $2.8 billion for the month, an increase of 34 percent. Travel receipts (i.e., everything but flights, boats, etc.) amounted to $9.1 billion for October 2010, up 13 percent year over year.

For the first 10 months of 2010, international visitors spent $111.5 billion on travel to the United States and on travel-related goods and services once in the country, up 11 percent year over year. Meanwhile, Americans spent $85.5 billion abroad during this period, up 4 percent year over year.

[photo by law_keven via Flickr]

The travel market recovery in five simple stats

Is it time to celebrate yet? International visitation to the United States is one month shy of posting a year’s worth of monthly gains. More people are coming, and they’re opening their wallets. A travel recovery is in the works, and it’s being fueled with foreign cash – a net benefit for U.S. travel industry workers.

How can you tell we’re on the upswing? Well, take a look at the five facts below, thanks to the U.S. Department of Commerce:

1. Travel is up: visits to the United States from abroad are up 12 percent from the first eight months of 2009 to the first eight months of this year, marking the eleventh consecutive month of year-over-year increases. So far this year, 40.2 million international visitors have come to the United States.2. August was hot: forget about how red the thermometer got. Instead, wrap your head around the fact that 6.4 million people visited the United States that month, a gain of 11 percent from August 2009.

3. They are spending: early in the recovery, visits were growing, but spending wasn’t. This is changing. Over the first eight months of this year, visitors from outside the United States dropped $88.2 billion here, up 10 percent from the same period in 2009. In August alone, the eighth month in a row in which spending grew, they spent $11.5 billion, an increase of 15 percent from August 2009.

4. They’re coming from everywhere: 17 of the top 20 countries registered increases from the first eight months of 2009 to the first eight months of 2010, with only the United Kingdom, Ireland and Venezuela posting declines. And, there’s momentum: for the month of August, 18 of the top 20 countries posted year-over-year gains.

5. And to everywhere: the concentration of visits coming to the top three and top 15 ports of entry has fallen slightly, indicating a slight increase in variety. Still, 38 percent of visitors came through the top three ports of entry in the country – i.e., New York JFK, Miami and Los Angeles – with the top 15 accounting for 82 percent of visits.

[photo by borman818 via Flickr]

Five signs people are traveling to the U.S. from overseas, recovery in progress

Travel to the United States from overseas is up drastically from last year. For the first seven months of 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, foreign visitation is up 12 percent relative to the same period in 2009. In July alone, 6.3 million people came to the country, a whopping 15 percent gain from July 2009, making it the tenth month in a row in which arrivals increased.

And, finally, these folks are spending more.

From January through July, foreign visitors dropped $76.7 billion into the U.S. economy, a 10 percent jump from last year. They spent $11.6 billion in July 2010, a surge of 18 percent and an indication of a pleasant financial trajectory. Spending by overseas visitors to the United States has grown year-over-year every month in 2010.

So, what do the details look like? There’s a lot of good news, the U.S. Department of Commerce reveals. Here are five stats that are sure to delight the U.S. tourism and travel industry:
1. Seventeen of the top 20 countries for U.S. visitation registered increases in people traveling here for the first seven months of the year – the only declines were from the United Kingdom, Venezuela and Ireland.

2. Twelve of these countries experienced double-digit increases, including Canada, Mexico, Brazil, China and Australia.

3. In July this year, 19 of the top 20 countries posted year-over-year gains, with Venezuela the lone holdout (down a modest 1 percent).

4. Double-digit gains came in July for 15 of the top 20 countries.

5. Arrivals from overseas locations (i.e., not Canada or Mexico) increased 15 percent from July to July and 12 percent from the first seven months of 2009 to the first seven months of 2010.

And, Canada has been busy. Air arrivals from our northern neighbor shot up 20 percent in July 2010, with land arrivals up 16 percent. For the year, air is up 15 percent, and land is up 12 percent. Mexico posted double-digit growth for both forms of arrival for both the month of July and the first seven months of 2010.

Of course, you don’t learn much by comparing 2009 to 2010, because 2009 was such a disaster. The effects of the financial crisis lingered, squeezing wallets shut and keeping people at home. So, you have to look back to 2008 to see if we’ve made any real progress.

Well, the news is positive. Visits from overseas increased 1 percent from the first seven months of 2009 to the first seven months of 2010. From July 2009 to July 2010, we experienced a 7 percent increase.

People are getting on planes again, and they’re visiting us. The travel market is coming back, but we’re still early in the process.

[photo by pheezy via Flickr]

Business travel to U.S. from overseas spikes

Suits and ties are no longer in short supply on visits to the United States from overseas. The latest data from the U.S. Department of Commerce shows 11 percent growth year over year for the first six months of 2010 … for total travel. Business travel led the way, with a 19 percent year-over-year gain for the same period. Leisure travel was up 9 percent.

Of course, this follows the staggering losses of 2009, in which business travel to the United States from overseas plunged 40 percent year over year, thanks in large part to the effects of the global financial crisis and the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. So, this year’s double-digit gains aren’t nearly enough to recover for the business activity that has been lost.

We’re headed in the right direction with business travel exports, but we still have a long way to go. The Department of Commerce notes in a statement, “[T]he double digit gains in business travel that most of the top overseas countries registered in the first half of 2010 are a welcome change.”

For the top 20 countries in travel to the United States, all posted gains for business-related travel, but only six showed leisure travel growth.

The suits are back, and they’re probably bringing some cash with them!