JS: Puget Sound taught me critical thinking, team management, and organizational skills that have been essential to my career. The small class sizes also encouraged active participation so I got to know my professors and classmates pretty well and benefited from hearing their unique perspectives. Being forced to take an active role in classes also boosted my confidence and presentation abilities.
CES: How did early experiences influence your career development? (part-time jobs on and off campus, internships, volunteer activities, campus clubs and involvements, etc.)
JS: My on-campus job as a writing advisor taught me how to build trust with individuals, coach them on methods for success, and work with peers through areas of struggle.
I took on a summer internship my sophomore year with Windermere Real Estate and worked in public relations and communications. The internship involved a 1.5 hour commute each way, so I was exhausted at the end of every night, and sometimes questioned if it was worth it, but in the end I am glad I did it to gain the experience. The internship gave me valuable insight into the workplace and made me more conscious of my personal strengths and weaknesses in a way that no college class ever could have done.
I also led the campus environmental group Earth Activists for two years which gave me great exposure to community organizations and led to several job opportunities with environmental organizations after graduating.
CES: What do you wish you had done or known during college that might have been beneficial to your career development?
JS: I wish I had known that success in college doesn't necessarily mean success in a professional environment, and how important it is to get work experience as early as possible before graduating to get exposure to the workplace and learn more about one's personal strengths and weaknesses.
An important part of this experience is exposure to working with people of all different backgrounds and capabilities. It's a lot tougher for individuals in the workplace environment that don't know how to work effectively with other people and don't see themselves as part of a larger team effort.
JS: I am responsible for identifying and acquiring project sites for solar developments and for managing the overall project development process from start to finish. I manage a team of engineers, land agents, transmission designers, permitting staff, and environmental consultants to lead projects through the early permitting and design phases to the point where the projects are ready to begin construction. A typical life cycle for one of my projects is 2-3 years. My first project, the 30 MW San Luis Solar Project, is in construction right now and will be one of the largest photovoltaic projects in the U.S. when operational in December 2011.
CES: What do you most enjoy about your work? Least enjoy?
JS: I enjoy the challenging and varied nature of my position. Every project brings interesting problems to solve, and I enjoy working with my colleagues across different functions of the business to identify solutions. As a developer, I know a little bit about a lot of things. My job doesn't allow me to become an expert in any one area, but I have a broad base of knowledge about all aspects of project development—for example, the structure of a power sales contract with a utility and how environmental study findings shape project design and siting.
The only real downside to my job is the amount of travel. At times, I travel up to 50% and I never get to go to glamorous places! Most of my travel is to the desert southwest, and small rural towns in Nevada, Colorado, California, and New Mexico. (Although it is nice to escape to the sun during the Oregon winters!)
CES: What would most surprise students to learn about the energy resources/renewable energy culture?
JS: I was surprised to learn about the wide variety of backgrounds in the renewable energy industry, including history, policy, english literature and law. I would have expected all engineers and scientists, but that hasn't been the case at all. I think this misperception keeps people away from this field, when it shouldn't!
CES: How did you break into your career and what has been your career path?
JS: I love to tell people that I majored in English Literature, because I think there is still a real misperception about career paths for English majors.
I started out my career working in the communications group for PacifiCorp, a large utility in Portland, Oregon. I loved to write and research, so then decided to give public relations and marketing a try with agencies specializing in the technology sector. I realized while working on the Microsoft account that at the end of the day I didn't feel any passion for what I was doing, and that I needed to try to break into a business that I cared about.
I applied for a position leading energy marketing and business development for David Evans and Associates (DEA), a large engineering consulting firm. DEA agreed to put me through business school, and I earned my MBA from Marylhurst University while working full time and attending school at night.
While in school, I received the wonderful opportunity to help DEA launch a subsidiary company focused on renewable energy project development. Over the course of two years, I created and led the business with a colleague and we developed the largest community wind farm in Oregon. That job helped me get started in the renewable energy development business, and after a few years developing wind sites I decided to make the switch into solar by accepting a position with Iberdrola Renewables in October 2008.
JS: Start with a good resume that highlights your best qualities and work experiences!
I also recommend mock interviews as a way to get honest perspective on how you come across to other people, particularly in an interview setting.
Candidates also stand out if they have work experience prior to graduating, like an internship, which tells a potential employer that they have experience in a workplace.
I think students with overseas experience also stand out because it shows that they can take risks and adapt to new environments.
CES: How can students overcome a lack of professional experience?
JS: Talk up any experience you have, and keep in mind that your classes are also "experience." For example, you can mention a research project that you conducted or thesis that you produced.
CES: Do you have any tips or resources for students looking for entry-level positions in renewable engergy?
JS: Connect with Puget Sound alums and others in the fields you are interested in and do some informational interviews. This is a great way to learn about career paths, including the pros/cons, and to start building the relationships necessary to land a job in the field you want.
There are lots of informal events for renewable energy professionals, like industry association networking hours, that can easily be found online. I encourage students interested in renewable energy to attend these informal get togethers and also to volunteer their time with energy organizations and industry associations to learn about job opportunities.
I have been fortunate in my career to be given many "scary" opportunities that involved a lot of risk, but great rewards if successful. These experiences have taught me that it is always worthwhile to take on the most challenging projects as a way of proving to oneself and others that you can handle difficult assignments.