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Road Warriors

Taking a job that requires lots of travel may be a good way to start your careerójust pack some travel success strategies for the trip.

By Lisa Hochgraf

Job description: Engineer wanted to do planning, configuring and installing for Frame Relay, WANs, LANs, NT servers and a communication room. Pay rate: $60-75K + bonus. Travel: 75%.

Should you consider this job?

Technical jobs requiring travel can be a great way for recent graduates to launch their careers—especially if they’re interested in certain career paths, such as consulting, sales or customer service, which are all likely to require travel.

“Oftentimes when people are coming out of school, travel is an exciting idea,” says Mike Baxley, owner of Mike Baxley Associates, the Dallas recruiting company that posted the above job ad. “Coming out of school is the best time to do it.”

The actual amount of travel may play a role in your decision. A certain amount of travel—say 10% of your work time—is all right with most people for their entire careers, Baxley finds. On the other hand, only some people like to travel 50% or more for a couple of years—and few want to travel 75% of the time for very long.

“[Heavy] travel is a killer after a year or two,” he says. “You lose any kind of home life. You have a small percentage of people who tend to like it and get energized by it.”

While frequent business travel can take its toll, it can also offer many personal and professional benefits. These include seeing new places, frequent flyer tickets usable for personal trips, the opportunity to interact with customers and, in some cases, increased compensation.

Whether traveling is a large part of your job for many years or only for a few, developing your own travel success strategies—and taking advantage of corporate travel support—can help make your road warrior days a positive experience for both you and your employer.

Travel Perks

Like many technical employees who travel for their work, Wayne Talley spends a lot of his road time talking with customers or potential customers. As a strategic marketing engineer with Burr-Brown Corp. in Tucson, Ariz., Talley is involved with new product planning. To get the information and ideas the design and production groups will need, he travels to client sites and asks a lot of questions. “We go out and discuss their needs in the future,” he says.

Talley says his career led him gradually into his current position, which includes about 25% travel, usually to account visits and trade shows. Before starting in marketing four years ago, Talley worked in quality engineering doing error analysis, and traveled less frequently. “It was very gradual the way it [the travel] worked in,” he says.

On the road, Talley can sometimes take time out to tour a new location or enjoy a major attraction. For example, one account contact took him to several Boston Red Sox games.

“There’s some sightseeing that can be done,” he says. “Sometimes it lies on the shoulders of the sales rep [from the client site].”

For Michael Mendolia, the chance to see new places was the best part of his work as a field engineer with Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Zygo Corp. Previously a missile technician for the Marine Corps and now a junior in the bachelor’s of electrical engineering program at Villanova University, in Villanova, Pa., Mendolia visited 30 states in the two years he worked for Zygo. He also took three trips to Taiwan and another to Canada.

“The main perks were region-oriented,” Mendolia says. “I got to see interesting places.”

During the slowest periods, Mendolia traveled 30% of the time. At the highest levels, he traveled a whopping 80%.

“It depended on how the industry was doing,” he says. “There was a little while there where I saw more of my customers than my wife.”

Mendolia says one of the reasons he took the job as a field engineer was the better pay it offered. He points out, however, that he often worked a 50- to 80-hour week without bonus compensation on top of his salary.

In Baxley’s experience, positions requiring travel will often pay as much as 30% more than those requiring comparable technical skills but no travel. Some employers will even pay overtime for the extra time spent on the road.

“If you’re working with a consulting firm, a lot [of companies] will pay overtime,” he says.

Road Warrior Tips

Jose Melendez gets so many frequent flyer miles from his business travel that he recently applied them to a family trip to Europe. He, his wife and their 3-year-old son will also use accumulated miles for an upcoming trip to Walt Disney World.

Director of microcomponents technology at Dallas-based Texas Instruments, Melendez travels three to four times a month, mostly to domestic destinations, but also to Europe, Korea and Mexico.

“My group is involved in developing new business, so I really have to be external,” he says. “When you’re involved with the customer, it’s really important to spend time (on site with them). There really is no substitute for that.”

Both Melendez and Talley have developed a list of strategies for success on the road. Here’s a compilation of their acquired corporate travel wisdom:

  • Use frequent flyer miles to spend quality time with your family, as Melendez has done. He feels this compensates his wife and son for the time Melendez is gone.
  • Set specific times you’ll be available for your family. Melendez tries to be home and available to his son between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. “During the week I get to see him at those times,” he says.
  • Learn to get comfortable—and to sleep—on airplanes. Melendez says, “I can sleep on a plane as if it were my bed. If you can’t sleep on airplanes, you won’t enjoy the experience [of a job with lots of travel].”
  • Work out the best travel itinerary possible. “I try to minimize connections,” Melendez says.
  • Consider carrying two cell phones—one for business and the other for personal calls.
  • Learn to pack quickly and lightly. “When you travel a lot, you don’t really spend a lot of (extra) time preparing for your trip,” Melendez says. “I try to carry very little.” He even leaves his laptop home as much as possible.
  • If you do carry a laptop, use it to your advantage. “The laptops are great,” Talley says. “We have customer management software [for tracking customer visits]. As long as you’ve got a telephone line, you’re all set.”
  • Be organized. “I’ve left the office and then thought, ‘Oops, no business cards,’” says Talley. “Now I make a list of everything I generally bring. There are so many little details.”
  • Pack only carry-on bags whenever possible.

Corporate Support

Melendez says one of the things that makes it possible for him to travel so much is that Texas Instruments has taken pains to make arranging business travel as easy as possible. Indeed, taking full advantage of a company’s support for travel might be considered another success strategy.

Texas Instruments has been proactive in streamlining its employee travel reservations system in part because of the potential cost savings on the company’s fourth largest expense, says Maria Puig, corporate travel manager.

A big piece of that effort has been the development of TRAVELChoice, an Internet-based system employees use to make or update their travel reservations—and secure a company discount. About 27% of the company’s 10,000 employees use the system, which was put in place two years ago.

“They like the flexibility of the product,” Puig says. “They like the ownership of the reservation process.”

Texas Instruments also boasts an automated travel expense tracking system. Employees fill out an online form that is then matched to online company credit card statements. A manager approves it online; then the employee gets an e-mail about the report’s status.

“You don’t see any paper in the whole process,” Puig says.

In addition to these automated systems, Puig also has a team of road warriors that travel to check out hotels and other travel services before engineers or other employees arrive on business.

“I think we pretty much cover the bases,” Puig says. “We take care of our travelers all over the world.”

To Travel or Not to Travel?

Still wondering whether a travelling job is for you? Consider these words of wisdom from experienced business travelers:

If you want to work with customers, travel may be necessary. “It’s important to be with the customer to create successful business opportunities,” Melendez says. “E-mail works great for a lot of things, but when you’re negotiating or closing a deal, it’s better to be live and in person.”

There are definitely two sides to the coin. Burr-Brown’s Talley says, “If they [recent graduates] enjoy travel, I encourage them to go for it. Most companies treat you really well.” On the other hand, he notes, “If they like to do a lot of laboratory research, they probably won’t like being a marketing engineer.”

A former field engineer and current bachelor’s degree student, Mendolia encourages recent graduates to take a stab at travel. “You meet customers. You see how the real world works. From there, you can go anywhere.”

Lisa Hochgraf makes words work for people. President of Top-Notch Text, a national company providing editorial management, writing and editing services.

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