So You Want To Become A Traveler!

Whatever your healthcare specialty might be, you think you might want to take travel assignments. However, you are confused. What do you need to do to become a traveler? How do you become a traveler? Can anyone be a traveler? How do you prepare to become a traveler? Will you be able to work consistently? Can you go where you want to go? Whew! So many questions and that is just the start!


Personality of a traveler

Before you decide to become a traveler, you must first do some serious self-examination. You have to ask yourself, “Do I have the personality and mindset to be a traveler?” To be a happy and successful traveler, you must have a sense of adventure, a willingness to adapt and not mind being the perpetual new kid on the block. Travelers must be able to adapt to new situations quickly. They must be able to walk into a new hospital and feel comfortable in their environment within a very short period. Travelers need to be able to socialize easily with strangers since everyone will be a stranger at first.

If you are uncomfortable not knowing anyone in the room or feel frightened in unfamiliar situations, then traveling may not be right for you. If you are a person that likes to be the most knowledgeable person at work and likes to know the where and how and who of everything, you may find being a traveler uncomfortable and intimidating. However, if you feel at home with a group of strangers within a very short period of time, enjoy the sense of adventure of going to new places, look forward to going to a new city and are not easily intimidated or concerned by being in unfamiliar situations, then you may do well as a traveler.

Here is a quick test for you to try to see if you have the personality of a traveler. Walk into a large, busy restaurant alone. Do not take your cell phone to talk to someone while you are taking this test and do not take a book to hide behind, either action will defeat the purpose of the test. Go during the peak of a Friday or Saturday evening rush. Sit down at a table and order a meal. If at the end of the meal you realize that you enjoyed your food and were unconcerned about what others in the restaurant thought of you being alone you might have what it takes to be a traveler. However, if you feel totally overwhelmed, intimidated or embarrassed, and you find that you just cannot enjoy the meal, traveling may not be for you.


Professional skills of a traveler

Some people have the mindset to be a traveler, but they do not have the professional skills to be one. This is not just referring to the new graduate, but also the more experienced person who feels there is only one way to perform their duties.

Travelers have to be thoroughly knowledgeable in their skill set. Hospitals hire travelers because they have a serious staffing problem and they need someone who can perform their jobs extremely well. You cannot expect to learn what you need to know in your profession as a traveler. You must come fully prepared with that knowledge and you must be extremely good at what you do. You may find that you have little to no orientation. You will find yourself working beside a staff coworker who had eight to twelve weeks of orientation and you only had four hours, yet you must perform at the same level.

There is no set amount of experience you should have before becoming a traveler. Most hospitals, and thus agencies, require at least one year of experience in your profession and specialty before they will consider you as a potential employee. However, even though an agency is willing to hire you, it does not mean they are doing you any favors. If you do not have the skills you need, you will find yourself in trouble. You could even be terminated and be unexpectedly without a job. Some hospitals may also require that a traveler has at least one or two years of experience as a traveler. This demonstrates proven adaptability to new working environments.

A traveler must have the skills necessary to do their jobs, but they must also be flexible. Sometimes very experienced travelers become frustrated and angry because a hospital wants them to perform a task in a completely new way. It is especially aggravating if the hospital’s method is contrary to what you feel is correct. Do you remember what your father probably told you as a child? “It is my way or the highway!” That is exactly how hospitals feel about things. Rightly or wrongly, hospitals want travelers to conform to their procedures and methods. This can be frustrating for the traveler that is set in their ways. In addition, staff people do not want to feel that a traveler is coming in to make changes or look down on them. If that happens, it can become very tense and uncomfortable for everyone involved.

Travelers can and do serve a valuable cross-pollination function, bringing new methods and knowledge to hospitals across the country. However, for this to work, it must be handled with the utmost of professionalism and tact and often subtlety, and the traveler must be willing to completely forgo "better ways" understanding that such introductions may cause more harmful stress to the staff (and yourself) than the potential benefits.

You will have a lot to learn at each new assignment. You will need to learn the people, the policies, the paperwork, the hospital systems and the way they do things; and you need to be able to learn these things very quickly. If you already have the professional skill set you need, you will find you are able to learn these things more easily. There will still be a learning curve, but it will not be as great. If you are unprepared in your skills, the resulting learning curve will make it infeasible to also complete the tasks required during your shift, place a burden on staff, and result in less than optimal patient care. 


Getting a travel job

Actually getting an assignment seems very straightforward. Simply contact the company or companies of your choosing, complete their requirements for applications, physicals and testing, choose the location or locations that they have available and wait for that interview call. Once you interview, you can decide to take that position or not. Although it seems an easy process, it is actually much more complex. 

Some travel jobs are quite plentiful. Nursing, for example, tends to be in the greatest demand. Despite that, there are some areas of nursing where it can be more difficult to find assignments. Emergency departments, various adult intensive care units, medical-surgical floors, and telemetry floors all tend to have numerous positions for travelers. Areas like pediatric intensive care or neonatal intensive care it is more difficult to find positions, although you will still be able to work full-time as a traveler. Some areas like hospice nursing and home care nursing tend to have scant jobs and it will be very hard or impossible stay employed on a full-time basis. More and more specialties are opening up to the healthcare professional that wants to travel. Respiratory therapists, radiology techs, physical therapists and ultrasound techs, for example, are finding travel assignments an exciting alternative to staff positions.

'Location, location, location' is a chant we hear when people talk about buying real estate. It is also a big issue for travelers. Some locations simply do not have travel assignments available. Other locations have plenty of assignments. Pay will vary by location, as well. The high cost-of-living locations may translate to either high pay or very low pay, depending on the location. Travelers who are more flexible in their choices of  location will be more likely to stay employed and to have higher pay.

Your experience and background may either help or hurt your chances of getting you the position you want. The more experienced professional is far more likely to be hired by the hospitals than the less experienced. The travel company may "hire" you regardless of your experience in the hope that some hospital will take you. You do not have an assignment, though, until a hospital signs a contract for your services.

It is important to remember that if your specialty requires a license to practice, you must obtain that license in time for the assignment to start. Licensing times and processes are vastly different from state to state. Do not assume that you will receive your license to practice in time to start the assignment without first learning what the procedures and times will be. Even then, delays and problems occur which can put off your start date or even lose you the assignment. 

Once you decide that you have the personality and the skills to travel, you need to sell yourself to both the travel company and the hospitals. Having a professional portfolio is one method of selling yourself. Having a resume, instead of just relying on the travel company’s applications, allows you to do two things. First, you appear more professional and stand out in a crowd. Second, you are able to tweak the resume to the position that you are trying to obtain; you are able to emphasize skills that will be valuable in the job you seek and deemphasize skills that are not. Other ways of selling yourself include using professional language and having a professional demeanor when dealing with both travel companies and hospitals. Remember, the travel company and the hospital will judge you by every word you say.


Choosing a travel company: 

Put fifty travelers in one room and you will find fifty different opinions on what makes a perfect travel company and every one of them will be correct. Every single traveler will develop their own ideas of what it is that they are looking for in a company and those ideas may change with time and experience.

The size of a company makes a great difference in the number of assignments that a company will have. No one company will have every travel assignment. The larger companies will not only have more assignments, but they will be more likely to have assignments in the area of the country you want to go. However, some smaller travel companies specialize in a particular area of the country, which frequently will be the area they are located. In those areas, large companies may not have those positions.

So if large companies tend to have the most assignments, one might think that they should not even consider a small company. That assumption would be wrong. Smaller companies will frequently have much more personalized service. You will deal with the same people and you will get to know them and vice versa. Your needs will more likely be anticipated; you will likely be able to negotiate with them better to achieve what you want. Smaller companies do not tend to have the costs of operating a large business, and therefore pay may be better. However, smaller companies are less likely to have some of the advantages that economy of scale brings in certain situations, such as benefits like 401(k) plans or disability plans.

To decide which company you should choose, you need to first The Agency Interview of what is important to you. This list must be exhaustive and prioritized. Although often there will not be one company that meets all of your criteria, it is important to know what it is that you want and which criteria are more important to you than others. After you develop this list, you must then call every company you are considering and ask them about your criteria. For instance, if finding a company that staffs New York City is your priority, obtaining a job with a company that only staffs California is not going to be helpful for you. If, however, you have a dozen criteria with equal weight, finding a company that meets the most of these criteria will be the most helpful. 

It is important to realize that travel companies only make money if you work for them and they will be most accommodating in order for you to decide to accept them.  Do not make your decision to go with a particular travel company based solely on the apparent personality of a particular recruiter. Just because a recruiter seems ‘nice’ does not mean that particular recruiter will have the same attribute when a problem develops. A recruiter that tells you what you want to hear is not as beneficial as the recruiter that tells you the truth, even if it makes you unhappy. 

While some travel companies will become upset if you tell them that you have other travel companies looking for a position for you, it is perfectly acceptable to work with several companies at one time. You have to have a job and waiting on just one company to come through for you may not get you that job. Some travelers jump from company to company to get the exact locations they want; this is perfectly acceptable. Others find it more comforting to work with the same company for long stretches of time and are willing to be more flexible in their assignment locations and pay to stay with that company. 


Interviewing for an assignment

After you choose a company and decide which area you want to take a travel assignment, the travel company will submit you to the hospital of your choosing. The hospital Human Resources department will forward your paperwork to the department manager, who will decide if he/she wants to interview you. If your qualifications fit their needs best of the profiles submitted (which may come from multiple agencies), you will get the anticipated telephone interview. Most interviews will be short with minimal questions asked. In fact, in most cases, the department manager has already reviewed your portfolio and is primarily concerned with getting you to commit in an “interview”. So it is up to you to ask the questions and to be ready with questions important to you when called (generally, the manager calls you at his/her convenience).  

Some interviews will be lengthy and exhaustive; as if they were hiring for a permanent, staff position. Be prepared to demonstrate quick thinking, a positive and friendly attitude, and professionalism. Even though you may be sitting on the sofa in your pajamas while being interviewed, this is a professional interview and your presentation is important. 

An interview is not just for the department manager to decide to hire you or not. It is your opportunity to learn about the position and decide if you want to accept it or not. Talking to the manager gives you a feel for the assignment. You learn many things from this interview, such as the viewpoints of the manager, problems, and organization of the unit. It can be amazing what managers are willing to tell you about their department, both good and bad. In addition, this is your opportunity to elicit details about what the manager expects of you. 

Occasionally, a manager will decide to hire you based on your paperwork alone. So there can be times when you will not have the choice to interview or not. Some hospital systems discourage interviews and some managers prefer to judge an applicant based on paperwork alone. In these cases, you must decide how important an interview is to you. 

Either during or after your interview, you will find out if the manager is willing to hire you. It is important to realize that you do not have to accept this position. It is now your decision to accept or refuse the assignment, although some travel companies will imply that you must take the assignment since you accepted the submittal. It is perfectly acceptable to tell the manager in the interview after you receive an offer, that you will make your decision on accepting the position in a day or two. If you tell the manager this in a friendly manner or ask if they mind if you delay your decision for a day or so for personal reasons, or to get further and satisfactory details from your agency, most managers will accept the delay. Remember, however, that the manager may not wait on your answer and may decide to continue interviewing other applicants and accept one of them. In that case, they will rescind the offer. The longer you delay in making a decision, the more likely that will happen. This will happen during the course of your career, often you will discover in hindsight that it was for the best and the alternative was better!


Accepting an assignment: 

Before you accept the assignment, you should have discussed with your travel company recruiter virtually everything that might appear in your contract. You should discuss every issue regarding pay, including overtime and holiday pay, reimbursements for travel, and any termination penalties in addition to your housing needs. 

Once you decide that you want to accept the assignment, notify your company of your decision. You may still have to discuss some minor details, such as start dates, for example. Your travel company will notify the hospital of your acceptance and then they will send you a contract. Between the time that you verbally accept the assignment and sign the contract, it is still possible to change your mind. However, it is unprofessional to do so unless something substantial changes, for instance, a major illness. However, if your contract has terms that you feel you cannot agree to abide by or are unfair, then that is an acceptable reason refuse the assignment. Many companies, especially smaller ones, will change a contract to meet your requirements. Also, if the contract has terms different from your verbal discussions, that makes your initial verbal agreement null and void, not matter what the recruiter might tell you differently.

Your contract is the most important document that you will receive from a travel company. It is essential that you understand that the contract protects the travel company and often will not be fair to you. It is important that you protect yourself by insisting on a fair and equitable contract. It is your responsibility to make sure you read and understand each sentence and accept each clause. If you do not understand any of the contract’s language, insist that the language is changed. Do not accept a mere verbal explanation; you will be obligated to the written terms, not the verbal explanation. If you are unable to agree to the terms of the contract, either have the contract changed to one you can accept or do not sign the contract. It is better to look for another company and assignment, rather than agree to unacceptable terms. 


Starting the assignment: 

Prior to starting the assignment, you must obtain information on when to appear, what to expect on your first day, what type of orientation you will receive, what to wear, what to bring and where to park. In general, it is advisable to have any license or certifications with you on the first day. It is important that you be on time and in clean, appropriate attire. How you present yourself on this first day will set the tone throughout this assignment. 

If you have the right personality and prepare yourself, you will find that being a traveling healthcare professional is a fun and rewarding experience!

Further suggested reading

Professional portfolio

The Agency Interview

The Facility Interview

Contract FAQ

Housing options


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