If you’re currently seeking work in a competitive industry, you may feel like everywhere you turn is a dead end. But you may be approaching your job search from the wrong perspective. Alex Konopka learned from experience the value of seeking out the opportunities that feel right for you and putting all of your effort into those applications, rather than casting a wide net and hoping you find something that works. Finding a career in the niche industry that he specializes in – vegetation management – was easier once Alex narrowed his focus. Read on for Alex’s job search success story as he shares his top job search advice and lessons learned.
What do you do for a career? Who do you work for?
I am the Manager of Vegetation Management for Portland General Electric. Our departments are responsible for all things vegetation at our utility. The (3) groups that comprise Vegetation Management are: Forestry, Landscape Services, and Vegetation Management Operations Coordination.
Forestry is responsible for trimming, removing, and managing trees that exist around our overhead power lines, for maintenance and in support of PGE inspection, construction, or repair work. Landscape Services is responsible for maintaining the landscape on company-owned property (employee centers, substations, limited ROW), as well as completing restoration of customer property following PGE activity – i.e.: if an underground powerline fails under a driveway, Landscape Services facilitates the restoration of the driveway with our customers and contractors. Vegetation Management Operations Coordination is responsible for processing and initiating vegetation-specific work requests for Forestry and Landscape Services that come from other PGE departments and our external customers.
How long did it take you to find this job?
I spent roughly 3 years actively working toward landing an entry-level job with a utility or municipality, in my field of landscape design/construction management (Bachelors-of-Science in Landscape Architecture, University of Idaho, 2011).
Positions with any utility is extremely competitive and seldom become open, especially the utility vegetation management industry. Of that 3 year job hunt, I spent 2 years of that time staying in touch with the previous PGE Vegetation Manager – reaching out every 6 months to express my ongoing interest in joining PGE. After a lengthy holding-pattern and several interviews, I was hired by PGE in December of 2014 and I vividly remember the excitement and emotion that was shared with my family upon delivering the news of my offer of employment– it was an experience and feeling that is up there with some of my best memories.
I was hired as an entry-level contract specialist in Landscape Services, spending most all my time driving throughout the service territory, working with our customers and landscapes. This was a largely independent duty, meaning I had little supervision as my work was so spread out. This experience pushed me to own my role and develop trust and confidence in my ability to adapt and overcome without the provision (or lure) of immediate gratification and the co-dependency that can exist between employees and their supervisors or managers. That role, as a contract Landscape Specialist, was pivotal in setting me up for later success with PGE.
I had worked in that Specialist role for several years, receiving high performance assessments each year. My supervisor was retiring, and thus another opportunity presented itself. After several interviews, I was offered the position of Supervisor of Landscape Services. This was a role that I had been excited about since I started with PGE, and I often thought my career trajectory would lead here. I hold a great deal of reverence for the leadership roles at PGE. As a leader, you have a much wider platform to influence and inspire change and realize success through the development of others; it’s a very rewarding responsibility.
I was in this supervisory role for approximately (6) months when the previous Manager of Vegetation Management announced his retirement. I am a firm believer success through hard work, however timing certainly can’t hurt!
In the Utility Vegetation Management industry, managerial positions are rare to come by. For example, in a recent conference, about ¾ of the room of 75 utility vegetation managers had over 25 years of tenure within their managerial positions. There is such a tenure across the industry because the position demands a passion for trees and vegetation, as well as, a passion for leadership and management. That combination of characteristics are so rare that you find that folks generally stay-put as they (myself included) are now living out their passion, and getting paid to do it!
After several more rounds of interviews, I was ultimately selected to lead the Vegetation Management department at Portland General Electric. The feeling was surreal and to this day, provides me motivation to do my best – knowing that PGE placed their trust and confidence in my abilities, while committing to my development. I felt supported by the organization then to take the leap into this new role, and continue to put myself out there for the benefit of our customers and PGE
How did you find your job? What resources did you use? What tool or tactic helped the most?
I found mentions of the job and department on the major job search engines, however I was shocked because I did not know that a utility even had a vegetation management program – further, that with my background and training I could have a place within a utility. I referenced the PGE careers webpage to confirm that this was a real posting and applied in short order.
Once I had my first interview, I continued to follow up with the previous Manager every 6 months or so to stay on the radar and reaffirm my interest in a career at PGE. It wasn’t until about (1) year later when another position, within Vegetation Management, was posted. I applied and again followed up with that same manager to notify him of my application submission and continued interest in joining the PGE Vegetation Management department.
You can see that persistence and consistency played a significant role in establishing my relationship with PGE prior to being hired. However, persistence and consistency need to remain appropriate. You do not want to flood the hiring manager with emails or too-frequent contact that seeks a response, that can become annoying for anyone. My ongoing (and not-too-frequent) touchpoints were short, articulate, and did not ask for a response. While the process of searching for a new career can be stressful, you do not want to let anyone see you sweat.
What was the most difficult part of your job search? How did you overcome this challenge?
Being patient. This was a very difficult part of the job search for me. At the time, my wife and I were recently married, had a son, and were sitting on a pile of student loan debt. Continuing my prior career path, was not sustainable to support our obligations and responsibilities. While I enjoyed landscape design, the residential market for those services is competitive, and the wages are not that great. I remember many tight months and sacrifices to ensure we could honor our commitments to parenting and paying for my education. This tension, developed over time, created the persistence in seeking new employment – always searching and applying for anything and everything, hyper focused on looking for any way out of the month-to-month scramble.
Once I learned more about PGE, the Vegetation Management department, and the available position, I felt like I belonged before I even got the job. It was in this moment that I learned the value of identifying opportunities that are right for you and laying it all out to get there, rather than casting the widest net and hoping something lands. I overcame this impatience by engaging with the aspects of the company and job that I could most identify with and seizing my opportunity through interviews and performance to achieve my goal of securing a position with one of Oregon’s most reputable employers.
What is the single best piece of advice you would offer other job-seekers?
A well-crafted resume and polished interview responses pay off in spades!
- Tailor your resume for each position you apply for.
- Speak to personal characteristics or traits, beyond simply listing job duties, that enabled your success in various positions.
- Spend an equal amount of time on the aesthetic – this invites the hiring manager to then spend time going through the resume content in detail. Everyone values craftsmanship, even in resumes.
- Develop a list of questions that you think will be asked in the interview and spend time crafting comprehensive and articulate responses. You should also prepare a list of examples that you can refer to when responding to questions about your role in specific situations or events, and their outcomes. Don’t be afraid to take those notes into the interview!
These forms of preparation demonstrate commitment to the process, respect for everyone’s time, and will provide you with the most meaningful interview.
Why do you love your job?
Working at PGE is extremely rewarding. I feel that I am part of something so much bigger than myself, helping to “keep the lights on” for our customers. Access to safe, reliable, and affordable electricity can be taken for granted. Most folks do not know how much work and effort goes into this amazing technology that has allowed modern civilization to occur, and it has been intriguing to learn about PGE’s history and the electrical grid.
Being a part of this industry and powering the everyday potential of our customers is another rewarding aspect of my work. I am not just an employee to PGE, I am a representative of PGE in my community, and I am also a customer.
I did not know much about electricity prior to working for PGE and it is so cool to now teach my kids about it and have them identifying substations or trees around power lines as we are driving around. I swear, some of their way-finding is based on substation locations!