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Why some employers actually value international travel experience

When Eric Messinger says "travel," he’s not talking about a weekend trip to Las Vegas, skiing in the Rockies, or even relaxing at a beach in Hawaii.

By "travel," he means exploring the Mayan ruins of Mexico, traversing the jungles of Colombia, and scaling the Andes of Peru — all in a year-long overland expedition from New York City to the edge of the world in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.

Messinger, 25, is one of three men who call themselves the “Nowhere Men” (née Global Goulets), a troupe of wayfarers who left their stable jobs to travel the world.

It seems risky — maybe crazy — to put your career on hold in today’s job market where, according to Newsweek, 40 percent of America’s unemployed are recent college graduates. But many millennials are taking time off, postponing their careers to travel.

And while some young people may choose travel over the dissatisfying realities of the job market, the truth is, travel can actually benefit your career — but you need to incorporate valuable experiences into your travel, keeping you on track with your career.

Why do millennials travel?

Messinger’s adventure began in 2014 when he was working as an elementary school teacher in New York City. He and two friends, Alex Portera and Brian Doochin, decided to take six weeks off work to participate in the “Mongol Rally,” a 10,000-mile trek from the UK to Mongolia.

“I’d never done anything like that before. I went to countries I’d never even heard of,” said Messinger. “If you had asked me a year ago where Azerbaijan was, I would have thought it was made up.”

According to the 2015 Portrait of American Travelers, a yearly study by MMGY Global, millennials are significantly more interested in travel than previous generations.

Forty-three percent said that they have traveled internationally in the past two years and 84 percent say that they will take the same number of vacations or more in the coming year.

Motivation for travel varied, but notable among millennials were “self-discovery” and “pursuing a hobby.”

Millennial travel interest may also be indicative of a larger trend toward a better work-life balance. According to a study by PwC, 95 percent of millennials said having a work-life balance was important to them.

Unlike previous generations, millennials are not interested in working from 9 to 5 at the same company for their whole lives. And they're often not satisfied with just two weeks vacation, either.

After the greatest adventure of their lives, Messinger returned to his job as a teacher and Portera and Doochin went back to their jobs as management consultants in New York City.

Only now they had been bit by the travel bug, and when the opportunity came, they packed their bags again — this time to drive to Argentina, filming their adventures along the way.

“My boss originally said, ‘Eric, I don’t think you should be doing this and I don’t think this is a good idea,’ but eventually he was really enthusiastic and really excited for me,” said Messinger. “To some degree they thought we were crazy, but on the other hand, they were jealous and they wanted to be doing what we were doing."

Traveling right can help your career

Many young Americans aren’t thinking about their career when they travel. Taking time off between college and career is often more about blowing off steam before the next great phase of life. But conscientious travel can give them an edge in the hiring process.

“Having a cultural experience is always a good growing opportunity,” said Jennifer Garrard, a recruiter for EY (formerly Ernst and Young). “I think you can grow more as a person when you travel internationally.”

As Garrard reviews resumes, she pays particular attention to resume gaps — a time where no work history is reported. Where often resume gaps are a red flag, Garrard said that explaining those gaps with travel may be beneficial.

“If you can pull in experiences that relate to leadership or teamwork, those are the types of characteristics that we look for in an interview anyway,” she said.

Chris Howell, the Industry Relations Manager at UCLA’s career center, has also found that employers are generally enthusiastic about job candidates who have experience abroad.

“No employer is going to look at that and say it wasn’t a good use of someone’s time,” said Howell. “It may be the best experience of someone’s life.”

However, Howell underscores the importance of incorporating professional experiences into travel. Most of the students he talks to work or volunteer while they’re abroad in order to add value to the experience.

The drawbacks of travel

The Nowhere Men also argue that travel can enhance career development in their blog, though they acknowledge possible career setbacks.

“The main pushback we’ve gotten is that employers think that someone who has travelled a lot is not going to be committed to the job — they’re going to look for the next best thing,” said Messinger.

Dr. Phil Gardner, Director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, shares a more cautious approach to international travel.

Gardner’s research institute studies the transition between college and career, focusing on key aptitudes and professional competencies that make job candidates successful. While Gardner believes that purposeful travel can help develop those competencies, leisurely travel may be a detriment to your resume.

“Everything can work for you and everything can work against you if you don’t put it in the right context, you don’t have a clear sense of why you’re doing it, and you don’t have some objectives you want to reach by doing it,” said Gardner.

“If you take off without a plan or a purpose, you don’t know why you’re doing it but you just want to take the time off, even if it’s just to go learn another language, then admit that that’s what it’s for, and you may have to pay a price when you come back that you’re not in sync with an employer.”

Gardner has seen that employers are typically open to resume gaps, but if the gap is found at the very first transition from college to career, employers may be uneasy.

“Sometimes employers wonder, ‘What’s your real motive? Are you going to stay with us very long? Because you kind of have this wanderlust. What’s your real work ethic, if you can’t settle down? Can you formulate goals? Cause they’re not very clear. Are you just on a ramble to have fun?’ And they’re not going to buy it. There’s going to be a gap and you’re going to have to overcome that,” said Gardner.

Professional experience is the top priority

Ultimately, even though goal-oriented travel experience can benefit your job search, experts agree that it’s not the best experience you can get.

“I don’t think employers see it as a super-high priority,” said Howell. “I’d say, as a rough estimate, that it wouldn’t add more than 5 percent to your overall application.”

International travel is nice, but employers are most interested in experiences that get you in a professional work environment — like internships, residencies and fellowships. If the internship was done abroad, it’s seen as a nice bonus.

“All experiences count,” said Gardner. “The problem is, there is a hierarchy. The more important ones are the experiences you have in a professional context.”

“Other experiences like, travel, study abroad or learning another language then become leverage points, but only once the door is opened by professional work experience,” said Gardner.

The Nowhere Men horizons

Still, uninhibited by skeptics, the Nowhere Men persist in their global travel crusade.

“It’s really unfair for someone to say that travel, in any sense, is impractical or a waste of time,” said Messinger.

“It’s a matter of putting yourself out of your comfort zone and learning skills that are applicable in the workplace,” said Messinger. “That kind of thing builds a lot of character in people.”

Of course, Messinger realizes that his nomadic lifestyle can’t last forever, and he has made peace with the idea of coming back to America and planting his roots. When he returned from the Mongol Rally, Messinger said that he came back with a whole new appreciation for American life.

“I want to have kids one day,” he said. “I want to settle down and live life — I guess — the normal way.”

Coming back to reality means re-entering America’s uncertain job market with no traditional work experience in the past few years. But Messinger isn’t afraid to make that transition.

“I think that what we’re doing now is going to work itself out career-wise,” he said.

Messinger, instead, sees the Nowhere Men functioning like a business venture and his journey as an investment in himself and his career. When he returns, he plans to connect with like-minded employers who will appreciate his experience.

Messinger hopes that people, by hearing his story, will be inspired to travel themselves and see the world through new eyes. If you’re already deep in your career, Messinger recommends saving up vacation time in order to have a longer travel experience.

“A lot of Americans, we take our one week vacation and that’s it,” said Messinger. “It doesn’t have to be a year, but it takes two to four weeks to have this kind of life-changing experience.”

sturner@deseretnews.com

twitter: @zamturner