An engineering scholarship sparked a lifelong career in the refining industry

Workforce |  4 min. read

In this thriving industry, more women are wearing hard hats alongside their male peers. A perpetual need for skilled workers in the fuels and petrochemical industries long ago nixed the notion that these jobs are traditionally for men. But even today, as men and women work side by side to produce the energy and products that power our world, many of our nation’s women might not fully realize these high-paying careers are awaiting them.

 One way to spread the word? Share their stories. As part of an ongoing series, join us for a look at some of the women working in today’s fuels and petrochemical plants.

So if somebody offered to sell you a load of sulfur, you might be tempted to ask if there was a BOGO (that’s buy one get one free) on fire and brimstone that week.

But if that “somebody” was Tracie McCall, back in the days when she was a sulfur salesperson, she’d have set you straight.  These days, sulfur is quite useful, in beneficial ways.  As sulfuric acid, for instance — it’s used in making batteries, making fertilizers and in oil refining.  And as a chemical engineer and former Petrochemicals Manager, Tracie knows what’s up about sulfur and other petrochemicals like propylene, xylene, benzene, toluene and cumene.

“Petrochemicals are not very well-understood, and we can help educate others about what we do and how our products are used,” Tracie said.  “Over 96% of all manufactured goods are touched by the business of chemistry – from the seat you are sitting on to your cell phone to the medicine you take.”

She used to sell asphalt too, and no matter where you live, you know what it is and how it is used.  Just walk outside to most streets and parking lots.  Those road construction projects are pretty popular during election years!

That was then though.  Now, she is in charge of PRODUCING sulfur, petrochemicals and asphalt (and gasoline and diesel and jet fuel and everything else a modern refinery makes) — as the Product Control Manager for Marathon Petroleum’s refinery in Catlettsburg, Kentucky (and if Catlettsburg doesn’t sound familiar, well, it IS a pretty small town — in very eastern Kentucky and almost on the Ohio River.  Population — a little over 1,800 people.)

Day to day, that means Tracie’s day starts with checking in on the blending and shipping team (the ones who actually receive and ship everything), the control lab team (who do all the quality control) and the economics and planning team (who figure out how much of each product to make from every barrel of oil).

Up next each day, she checks in with all the groups that DON’T report to her (but that she needs to talk with anyhow):  like the operations, safety and maintenance teams.

The rest of the day (and yes, there IS a rest of the day after all that) — she tends to whatever might come up that day, along with planning for long-term projects (and we mean LONG — projects years out in the future).

But as you might guess, going from being a sulfur salesperson to a manager at a refinery — is not anyone’s typical career path.   And not much else about Tracie’s career path was typical either, but there is a nice twist to her story.

She’s always liked science and math — but didn’t have the money to pursue that in college, until she went on tour at a local refinery (along with classmates), and liked what she saw.  A lot.  Apparently they liked what they saw to it, because when Tracie was a high school senior, they awarded her a scholarship for students studying engineering.  And, years later, she’s come back to work at the very same refinery – Marathon’s refinery in her hometown of Catlettsburg.

That means she’s also had a fair bit of time making her way as a woman in a man’s world (“it’s definitely getting better” she says).

“The first project I ever designed, back in 1996 — when it came time to throw the switch and start operations, I had to train the operators on how to run the equipment.  And I could tell some of them were a little skeptical — in fact, one guy said, ‘Let’s see what the little gal has to teach us.’

“But I give them credit — they DID listen, they DID learn, and in the end, they acknowledged that this ‘little gal’ DID have something to teach them.  And I AM short, so the ‘little’ part, they were right about.”

“And what I learned, from that and my other jobs, was that — yes, it was not unusual to be one of few women on site, but that if I did my job and made sure that I was heard when I had something to say — no one would stop me.”

When she got to Marathon, Tracie did a little research about her co-workers, identified some strong women and went to them for career advice and help — kind of DIY-mentoring.  Now that she is one of those strong women at Marathon Petroleum — young women find her to be a mentor (and there is more of a formal mentoring program now).

And if a young woman in college were to ask her whether the fuel and petrochemical industries are a good place to work — Tracie’s answer is a definite “Yes!”  In fact, she says (as other women have told us) this is a GOOD time to be a woman entering the industries.

Before we wrapped up talking to Tracie, we did ask her (as we like to do), to tell us something people might be surprised to know about her.  Turns out there is ONE guy who definitely knows this, but her “secret” was that as a kid, she and her grandfather loved watching professional wrestling.  In fact, she was addicted — and even today, she’s got some wrestling dolls (think Hulk Hogan, say, but Barbie-sized) around the house.

And that ONE guy who already knew this?  Well, Tracie told us that there is a video somewhere on YouTube, of her putting a customer in a Figure Four Leg-Lock.  Maybe she was just teasing us — but if not, we’re guessing that guy bought a LOT of sulfur that day!