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Serving Your Country:
Careers In Government And Defense Contracting
By Sandra H. Shichtman
Whether it’s working for the U. S. government, a company that provides products and services to the U.S. government, or one that does defense contracting for it, there are plenty of career opportunities available nowadays. The four graduates profiled below have found satisfying careers serving their country, either directly or indirectly.
U.S. Department Of State—An Interest In World Affairs
A 2005 graduate of Houston Baptist University, this son of migrant workers from South Texas and his four older siblings were born in Flint, MI, where their father worked in the automotive industry. With the decline of the auto industry in the mid-1980s, the family moved back to Texas, where Josue Barrera grew up and went to school. At Houston Baptist, he majored in mass media, with print journalism as his focus. Throughout high school, he had an interest in current events and world affairs. “Mass media seemed to be the place I could learn about it and apply it,” he recalls.
Barrera completed internships both at a newspaper and at a Spanish-language television station in Houston. At the newspaper, he noticed that half of the work, if not more, was government-oriented. So, he decided to find out what was going on the other side of the picture—in the government.
Upon graduation from Houston Baptist, Barrera enrolled in a master’s degree program in public policy management at the University of Texas in Brownsville. “It excited me,” he explains. “I liked the idea of public service.” Through the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), a consortium of Hispanic-serving institutions that helps students interested in public service get internships, mainly within the government, Barrera completed an internship in the Office of Personnel Management in Washington, DC. He found himself interested in international affairs and began to look at the State Department as a place to begin his career.
Barrera earned his master’s degree in 2007 and was hired into the rapid response unit, an office within the office of public affairs, at the State Department. The rapid response unit does media monitoring, watching news from around the world. Barrera, with his background at the Spanish-language television station, monitored Spanish news.
From that initial position, Barrera moved to the office of regional media outreach, which provides the media with the State Department’s point of view about issues. “I was the human resources officer responsible for connecting the Department of State to Hispanic-serving organizations,” he notes.
Today, Barrera is outreach coordinator in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Economic Policy, and Summit Coordination Office. “I’m still communicating with the public on State Department position but I now include foreign policy. I am now the intermediary for our spokespeople on summit issues,” he declares, referring to the Summit of the Americas meeting in Colombia in April 2012.
His greatest challenge in his present role is coordinating the different interests and agendas of the seven or eight governmental agencies and the other 33 nations involved in the summit meeting. Using technology, specifically Microsoft’s SharePoint, helps him share information with others working on the meeting.
Barrera is amazed at the scale and the magnitude of work being done by the State Department and happy to be a part of it. He remains with HACU as an at-large member of the alumni board and is also a member of the Hispanic Employee Council of Foreign Affair Agencies (HECFAA), an organization within the State Department that gives Hispanics opportunities to rise in the ranks and encourages Hispanics outside of the State Department as well as students to consider a career with the State Department.
Fluor Corporation—Providing Services In Diverse Industries
Born in Mexico, Ludivina Grace was raised in Zapata, TX, a small town near Laredo. She enjoyed chemistry and math in high school, read a great deal about chemical engineering, and learned she could have a wide range of career opportunities with a bachelor’s of science degree in chemical engineering. So, she enrolled at the University of Texas/Austin and earned that degree in 2007.
Grace completed co-ops at oil and gas companies and paper/personal care companies where, she says, “I found out what I didn’t want to do.” She also heard about Fluor and scheduled an onsite interview. During the interview, she got to see the place and how people interacted with each other. “The work environment was very friendly, people were welcoming, and I could see myself working there,” she remembers.
Fluor, a 100-year-old global company headquartered in Irving, TX, provides engineering, procurement, construction, and maintenance and management services (EPCM) to clients in diverse industries as well as the U.S. government. The office where Grace works provides EPCM services to oil, gas, and chemical clients worldwide for their capital project needs.
After graduation, Grace was hired at Fluor as an associate design engineer in the control systems department, which is responsible for sizing and selecting all the instrumentation and automation that goes into Fluor-designed chemical plants and refineries. After a one-day training that Fluor gives to all its new hires, Grace completed three months of departmental training—twice a week for two hours per day—where she learned the basics of every type of instrumentation.
At first, Grace worked with a more experienced design engineer, but, now, with experience, she works more independently in sizing different instrumentations. She adds, “I get to interact with vendors to get these instruments spec’d out and attend different meetings that deal with internal disciplines.”
She sees herself as patient and able to communicate well with people in different disciplines within Fluor and from different cultures. She tries to understand people, putting herself in their shoes. She adds that she usually works well under time constraints and pressure, other valuable traits.
She served as the 2010-2011 president of Graduates Advancing to Professionalism (GAP) and is now the first global GAP president. GAP is a young professionals group within Fluor for college graduates during their first five years out of school. They automatically become members upon being hired and can take part in social activities, lunches, volunteer opportunities, and sports leagues. The purpose of GAP is to encourage these new employees to make friends within Fluor and become better acclimated to the work environment after years in a college setting.
Grace is also involved with another group, the Fluor Employees Club. She represents the company at her alma mater, talking to different student organizations about Fluor. Her involvement with these groups and activities has allowed her to meet many people she wouldn’t know otherwise, since she wouldn’t work with them.
DynCorp International—Support Services To The U.S. Government
A graduate of the University of Texas/Arlington, Evonne Ruiz comes from a small, predominantly Hispanic, community in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. She began college at UT/Austin as a pharmacy major because her family’s profession was predominantly in pharmacy. But, after two and one-half years, and part-time jobs around finance and accounting, she switched schools and switched her major to finance and accounting.
She interned at DynCorp International, a global government services provider that supports U. S. national security and foreign policy objectives, during her last semester. The Falls Church, VA-headquartered company provides support solutions for defense, diplomacy, and international development initiatives. One of Ruiz’s college counselors had previously sent several students to DynCorp International as interns, so he made a telephone call to see if there was anything available for the summer. There was work available and Ruiz was hired as an intern beginning the summer between her junior and senior years and continuing on, part time, through the semester before her graduation in December 1998.
As an intern, she worked in the general ledger accounting department, basically reconciling accounts, balance sheets, and cash accounts. When she graduated, she came on full time as an accountant. As a service provider to the U.S. government, DynCorp International’s accountants receive training in generally accepted accounting principles in addition to specialized training pertaining to several different government regulations.
She has since risen about eight positions, from entry-level accountant, through principal accountant, senior accountant, and manager, to her present position as senior financial director for the company. Now, she remarks, “I prepare our forecasting, budgets, and operating plan financials for all of the governmental operations with which DynCorp International is involved, and presents them to management.”
Because DynCorp International is a constantly changing company, operating 24/7, 365 days a year, Ruiz must ensure that any financial impact related to the company is communicated, that we there are no surprises.
Being a part of DynCorp International’s mission to support defense, diplomacy, and international development services to the U.S. government is what interests her and drives her most in her career. She’s become adept at stress- and time- management, has good communication and people skills, and the flexibility necessary to deal with so many people around the world, and manages home/life balance issues with the help of a very understanding husband.
ITT Exelis—Many Career Options
As far back as high school, Wendy Avelar was fascinated by how things worked. So the Wheaton, MD, native participated in a four-year high-school program called Project Lead-the-Way, where she learned something about each of the engineering disciplines. “I ended up choosing mechanical engineering,” she recalls. It was the broadest discipline and she thought it would offer the most career opportunities.
She was also part of Collegiate Directions, Inc. (CDI), a nonprofit organization that offers college counseling and support to low-income, primarily first-generation college students. CDI helped her apply for scholarship opportunities. Avelar attended Cornell University on a scholarship. She completed two summer internships at ITT Exelis, after her freshman and junior years. “The vice president of my current project at Exelis is actually a supporter of CDI,” she explains. “She informed my counselors of the internship opportunities at Exelis.”
ITT Exelis, a diversified aerospace, defense, and information solutions company headquartered in McLean, VA, is dedicated to meet the needs of military, government, and commercial customers around the world. It focuses on products and services in communications, composites, air traffic solutions, information and cyber solutions, space missions, and command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR).
As an intern, Avelar worked on a ground communication project for the U.S Department of Defense, mostly shadowing a more experienced engineer and learning what the different responsibilities of the job would be if she were to come onboard full time after graduation. “And, I would get the smaller task, they would teach me a little bit about it, and then they would kind of hand it off to me,” she recalls. They would also give her an idea of where the task would fit within the entire project.
When she graduated from Cornell in May 2011, she was hired on full time at ITT Exelis as an entry-level mechanical engineer 1. “I was given the option to look at the different projects and choose the project I found the most interesting or that would be the best fit for me within the space communications network services contract,” she reports.
The SCNS contract focuses on communications and tracking services for a wide range of aircraft, spacecraft, and satellites. Avelar chose to do radio astronomy work on the Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) project, where data from multiple telescopes placed in different locations and focused on the same object in space can help scientists predict natural occurrences such as earthquakes.
She received orientation to the company and then to the SCNS contract. “Once I chose to go with VLBI, I received on-the-job training from some of my more experienced colleagues, some of whom, Avelar says, act as mentors.
One of her biggest challenges is to try to figure out why equipment doesn’t behave the way it’s supposed to. Her colleagues have been her greatest resource. “They point me in the right direction and give me the reading material necessary to figure out the solution to the problem,” she notes.
Avelar enjoys working for ITT Exelis, where different projects and contracts provide many career options.
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