Dreams of A Diplomat: A Degree, A Credential, A Pitfall & A Stepping Stone

by Just Juan
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“A stumbling block to the pessimist is a stepping stone to the optimist” – Eleanor Roosevelt

A little under 2 years ago, I made the trip up to the nation’s capital with a clear goal: secure my dream job by passing the Foreign Service Oral Assessment. I failed by the slimmest of margins. It was simultaneously a frustrating and heartbreaking experience. Coming up short on such a grand stage signaled to me that I wasn’t quite as ready as I thought I was. The 1-year moratorium on me applying for the Foreign Service Facility Manager job expired last year. But true to my word, I declined to apply. For the past 2 years, I’ve literally been in the trenches trying to get better.

THE EDUCATION PIECE. I walked into that oral assessment center in June 2014 just 3 weeks clear of finishing the Spring 2014 semester of my graduate program at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Last December, I wrapped up my capstone paper—the last of the requirements set forth by the College of Applied Science & Technology concerning the Master of Science in Facility Management—and finished the program. It was a great Christmas gift to have earned that degree. Next week, I’ll actually make the trek up to Rochester to personally walk across that stage with the rest of the Class of 2016. What I’ve learned over my 2 years in the program is significantly more than what I knew coming in way back in January 2014. The Air Force didn’t prepare me for the “real” concept of facility management. Hell, I was in charge of training facility managers on 2 different bases, and with the benefit of hindsight, I can honestly say that I didn’t prepare them well because I wasn’t prepared well. That’s different now. I’m locked and loaded on the education side.

THE CREDENTIAL PIECE. Earning that master’s degree was big. It’s no doubt a game-changer for me. Don’t get me wrong: I’m extremely proud of it. After all, I put in a lot of effort to earn those 33 credits. But that degree alone won’t make me an attractive candidate for the FSFM position. I needed a professional designation…post-nominal letters that leave no doubt that I’ve been through the grind of learning and working in this field. The richest prize in this industry is the Certified Facility Manager credential by the International Facility Management Association. It’s worth to a facility manager is the equivalent of a top-secret security clearance to a fellow DoD contract company. At some point in the future, I’ll pursue that. Right now, I don’t know enough about certain aspects of facility management like information technology, sustainability, and human factors. I’m still at least 3 years away from applying for the job so I guess you can say that the CFM is the “long pole in the tent”. While the CFM isn’t on my immediate radar, that doesn’t mean I didn’t seek out other credentials. I dropped the $1487 on the study materials for the IFMA Facility Management Professional credential. After 10 months of studying, I took the exam a year ago tomorrow. I passed it, cementing my knowledge in the core competencies of finance and business, operations and maintenance, leadership and strategy, and project management. I earned the FMP credential and the rights to use those post-nominal letters. From May 29, 2015 until December 18, 2015, I was known as AnJuan Thomas, FMP. However, when I earned the aforementioned master’s degree in facility management, I earned new post-nominals. Now I’m AnJuan Thomas, MSFM, FMP. I’m strongly considering going after the Sustainability Facility Professional (SFP) so that I can add those post-nominals with more education on sustainable facility management. I’ve even thought about the Project Management Professional credential or even a LEED credential. Still, the end game is to be AnJuan Thomas, CFM. None of the other credentials are worth more than that one. Nevertheless, I’m happy to have my first credential.

THE IFMA PIECE. After the failed oral assessment, I decided to switch my IFMA chapter membership from the Capital Chapter, which is where I started when I joined IFMA during my last few months at Joint Base Andrews, to the Birmingham chapter. Unfortunately for me, there is no chapter within 50 miles of Opelika. The closest chapters were Birmingham and Atlanta. I chose my hometown and that has been a boon for me. I made some great friends up there and I’ve been learning from some fantastic veterans of this industry…men and women alike. I’ve also been able to link up with some facility managers and advisors from all over the South. I’ve gotten a chance to pick the brain of the facility manager at the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta as well as the facility manager at Emory University. I’ve also gotten a chance to really get in good with Dr. Roscoe Hightower, the Chair of Facility Management at Florida A&M University. He’s been a godsend to the IFMA Young Professional Program…especially with the young Black American FMs like myself. The biggest help in my development, as far as individual people go, is a guy by the name of Thomas Mitchell. Like me, he was a civil engineer in the Air Force. But his career after his military service is what drew me to him: Chairman of the IFMA Global Board of Directors, Board of Directors at the National Institute of Building Sciences, adjunct professor at Florida A&M, and most importantly, part of the industry advisory group at the Department of State Bureau of Overseas Building Operations. If you don’t think I’ve sent Thomas a couple dozen emails, called a few times, and chatted up with him at conferences, then you definitely don’t understand how bad I want to be an FSFM. Outside of the professional relationships I’ve formed with more experienced facility managers, I’ve dropped the coin on getting as much training as I possibly can. Fortunately for me, it’s all reimbursable on the taxes. Lord knows USACE ain’t paying for me to train for a better job.

THE PITFALLS OF THE USACE JOB. And that’s the perfect segue to lay out how my current position as Area Facility Operations Specialist won’t get me the FSFM position. Don’t get me wrong: I’m extremely grateful for this job. I’m a GS-11, Step 3. I bring in just over $63000 a year, which makes for a comfortable living as a single man—at least for another month, anyway—in Opelika, Alabama. I spend half of the month on overnight business trips, which bring in an extra $400-500 a month in meal and incidental expense per diem. I’m geographically separated from my leadership in Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina. I can work from home any time I want to. If I wasn’t an ambitious man, I’d be extremely content with this job. Unfortunately, I’m not only ambitious, I’m extremely ambitious. The position of Area Facility Operations Specialist is nothing more than a glorified quality assurance inspector. The real power is wielded by the Regional Facility Operations Specialist in Montgomery. For the 27 U.S. Army Reserve facilities in my portfolio, the most I can do for them is input a work order or take a picture. I can’t make a decision to improve a facility’s condition. I can’t even give the tenants a timeline on when something may be fixed. Hell, at my primary building in Opelika, I have to get 3 different quotes from local pest companies, send them to the powers-that-be in South Carolina, and wait weeks on end just to have the outside of the building sprayed for ants. I kid you not…it takes approximately 4 months to get approval for a $90 pest service to spray ants. I feel like I need to be more involved in the decision-making. I need to be able to have a say in what should get done in my buildings. I don’t have that kind of responsibility in this job. And it’s for that reason—along with me being in Year 3 of a 4-year term appointment—that I decided to look for something better.

THE STEPPING STONE. That something better for me may very well be a return to the National Capital Region. I’ll likely find out tomorrow or early next week for sure but it looks like I may be heading to the U.S. Department of the Interior to be a Building Management Specialist at the Stewart Lee Udall Department of the Interior Building. It’s actually the 2nd job I’ve been offered in the last 3 ½ weeks. Back in February, I applied for a GS-11 Facility Operations Specialist position with the U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base outside of St. Louis. They offered me the job last month and I accepted it. I was set to start that job a month after the wedding, with Mercedes and I starting new in The Lou. But a week after accepting that job with TRANSCOM, I got a call from Interior about their GS-12 position. I had a great phone interview with the Senior Building Manager and the Assistant Building Manager. And it’s an increase in pay…though moving back to the DC area completely offsets it. I asked the HR rep at DOI if I could report in late July as a condition of acceptance. If they honor that, I’ll ditch the job at TRANSCOM and we’ll pivot to the nation’s capital. Based on the conversation, I think they’ll honor the request. This position will afford me the opportunity to be in the room with the decision-makers, to influence how the day-to-day building operations are conducted. I probably won’t be a true #2 as I’m set to be at Scott but being a little further down the depth chart in a Federal executive department headquarters building is a lot better than being the assistant on an Air Force base, where the Civil Engineer Squadron essentially makes all of the decisions. Like I wrote, hopefully, I get my answer shortly.

The timing of the potential DOI position couldn’t have been better. With the degree and the credential in hand, I can focus exclusively on learning how to run a single building…and more importantly, a political office building. Remember, U.S. embassies and consulates around the world are basically U.S. political office buildings. The opportunity to work in the DOI headquarters may very well be the stepping stone I need to launch me back into the FSFM game. From where I stand now, I’d say I need a minimum of 3 years to learn and develop at DOI before I can comfortably feel ready to pursue the FSFM job again. That written I’m targeting the Spring-Summer of 2019 as the point where I’ll reapply for the 3rd time.

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