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Finding a place at the Corps

Jeannette Wilson tells the story of how she became an Operations Project Manager for the Walla Walla District

WALLA WALLA CORPS OF ENGINEERS
Published March 5, 2021
Operations Project Manager Jeannette Wilson speaking at the 50th anniversary ceremony for Lower Monumental Lock and Dam in 2019.

Operations Project Manager Jeannette Wilson speaking at the 50th anniversary ceremony for Lower Monumental Lock and Dam in 2019.

Finding the perfect career isn’t easy, but for Jeannette Wilson, becoming the operations project manager (OPM) at Lower Monumental Lock and Dam was like finding gold at the end of the rainbow.

Wilson came to the Walla Walla District as an active duty officer. As a captain, and then a major, with the Army, she worked with various departments within the district, including Project Management, Construction and Operations. It was during this time that she became interested in the work involved in being an operations project manager.

“I was extremely fascinated by the breadth of the work. It’s budget, it’s technical, you’re talking to all kinds of different people, problem-solving, leadership,” Wilson said. “It just had everything I wanted to be a part of.”

Initially, Wilson had no intentions of staying with the Corps of Engineers. However, the opportunity to stay on with the Walla Walla District after getting out of the military was too good to pass up.

“This was just a perfect fit for my skills and what I wanted to do career wise. So honestly, I really just kind of tripped into it, I really didn’t even know this world existed until I was able to do a duty assignment here,” Wilson said.

As the dam’s OPM, Wilson is responsible for outcomes at the dam, including managing its workforce.

“My favorite part of the job is the people. I’m a people person, I like to collaborate, I love to bounce ideas off of others, I love to learn from them, I like to share what I know - definitely my favorite part,” Wilson said.

The Walla Walla District, one of five districts in the Corps’ Northwestern Division, encompasses approximately 107,000 square miles in six states: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and small parts of Nevada and Utah.

Within the Walla Walla District, many different areas of expertise come together to achieve its mission: to construct, operate, maintain, and secure multipurpose infrastructure to energize the economy, reduce flood risk, and serve as stewards of water resources for the Snake River Basin and the Nation.

That also entails producing hydropower, a clean renewable energy resource that reduces the Nation’s need for foreign oil; providing navigation that enables 9 million tons of goods worth $3 billion to transit its locks each year and providing recreational benefits for nearly 8 million visitors a year.

So being an OPM at one of the District’s eight dams is challenging and being a leader comes with a lot of responsibility.

“There are so many different mission sets that are intertwined with each other so you can’t assume that you know everything there is to know because if you make a decision, there could be consequences to some other mission that you had no idea of,” Wilson said. “Whether it’s planning or just saying ‘ok stop, I want to do this thing with my navigation lock. It seems like it’s just going to affect navigation, but wait a minute, what about fish? What about hydropower? What about the spillway?’ … it’s just a challenge you have to take into account.”

The Corps of Engineers employs individuals of many different professions to fulfill its mission goals. This includes everything from biologists, to budget analysts, from crane operators to contract specialists. Of course, this is in addition to employing engineers of all fields, including electrical, structural, and geotechnical.

“The piece of advice I’d give someone pursuing the same career is don’t sell yourself short. It’s really easy to say ‘well I’ve never done this, I’ve don’t know budgets, I don’t know hydropower,’ … there are plenty of mentors who are willing to teach you that,” Wilson said. “You don’t have to be the expert in everything you do as an operations project manager. That’s why you have amazing people that you work with, you work for, or they work for you. And you have to take all of them and use their inputs.”

More information about the Walla Walla District can be found at https://www.nww.usace.army.mil/About/. Information about job opportunities with the Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies can be found at https://www.usajobs.gov/.