James Fujioka at Lake Mead CEMML technician James Fujioka on a recent visit to Lake Mead. Courtesy James Fujioka.


The usual advice for people changing careers is to consider how their previous work experience could apply to the field they plan to enter. That’s just what James Fujioka did when moving from the restaurant industry into natural resources management over the last few years. “I found ways to relate my work in kitchens to the criteria they were looking for,” he said. “It wasn’t science but it taught me other things like using spreadsheets for budgeting, managing teams of employees, problem solving and thinking outside the box, and coordinating work across departments.” Now he’s putting those transferred skills to work as a natural resources technician at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base, through the CEMML Early-career Development Program

Fujioka grew up in Salem, Oregon, then headed east after high school. An interest in fine cuisine led him to attend the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he got an associate degree in culinary arts. More than a dozen years of restaurant work ensued, on the East Coast, in Oregon, and in Las Vegas, Nevada. He worked his way up from food prep positions to being a chef to eventually managing kitchens. He spent most of his free time in the outdoors, though, continuing a lifelong interest in nature and science. As a youngster, he had camped and hiked a lot, and while working in Oregon, he took a year-long wilderness survival course. “We met every month to learn different skills — how to build a shelter, how to use plants for food and medicine, how to build a fire,” he said. He also worked for a summer as a wildland firefighter.  

During the COVID pandemic, Fujioka found that working in the restaurant industry became even more stressful than usual. “I got a little burned out,” he said, “and decided it was time for a change.” He thought back to his firefighting experience, and realized that while he enjoyed working in the woods, he wanted a job that was more concerned with conservation of natural resources. “The focus on fire was understandable, of course,” he said, “but not how I wanted to connect to the outdoors.”   

CEMML technician James Fujioka helped relocate burrowing owls to safe locations away from the Nellis Air Force Base flightline. Courtesy James Fujioka.

He signed up for online college courses at Southern New Hampshire University and will graduate this December with a bachelor’s in environmental science and a concentration in natural resource conservation. To gain experience in his new field, Fujioka applied for several natural resource jobs with various federal agencies, but was stymied by his lack of experience. Then he came across the CEMML Early-career Development Program on a conservation job board, and saw several entry-level positions that didn’t require years of previous work in the field. He wrote a cover letter explaining how his restaurant experience translated to the requirements of a resource technician, and was hired. “I didn’t know that you could work in natural resources on a military base,” he said. “I didn’t realize how big the natural resources programs are on bases.” 

In early March, he started his new position at Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas. He’s had a wide range of assignments, from preparing reports and creating work plans to coordinating with federal and state agencies to doing fieldwork with CEMML biologists. The fieldwork has been the most interesting part, he said, citing projects that involved trapping small mammals for a study, surveying for a rare lizard species, and relocating burrowing owls from an airfield to artificial burrows he helped build. “My supervisors at Nellis are really supportive and encouraging of me to get out in the field and participate in anything I can,” he said. “The CEMML team has been so welcoming and helpful with answering questions and showing me how to do things.”    

Fujioka plans to continue gaining field experience, focusing on conservation ecology. He’s hopeful that his work at Nellis AFB will lead to a permanent job. His supervisor, CEMML principal investigator Chris Herron, noted that “by the end of this experience, his resume will be filled with a wide variety of skills and experiences that should help him secure a better job down the road.”  

Regardless of where he ends up, says Fujioka, he’s off to a great start. “This opportunity through CEMML is exactly what I needed,” he said. “It will help me in the future as I move forward in this field.”