Fuel and petrochemical industries offer high-paying careers that don’t require a four-year degree

Workforce |  5 min. read

If you’ve heard people say that America doesn’t make anything anymore – that there are no good blue collar jobs anymore – here’s the answer to that:  wrong, and wrong.

There are still American industries where those jobs never went anywhere – jobs that require serious skills and knowledge, but don’t necessarily require college degrees.  Jobs where making things has never gone out of style – jobs where you don’t learn your trade straight out of a book — and you can find those jobs in America’s fuel and petrochemical industries.

Let’s look at an example.  If you’ve ever driven by a refinery or a petrochemical plant, you’ve probably noticed all those glowing lights – like a small city…

…and there’s something to that.  Inside are hundreds of structures, thousands of miles of pipe, all sorts of sophisticated equipment and advanced technology –  all of it operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Also inside, keeping that “city” running are operators, technicians, environmental coordinators, maintenance workers, managers and inspectors – all making sure those pipes, equipment and technology are running smoothly.

Keeping an eye on everything, on that same 24/7 clock – are process operators.  In this case, keeping an eye on their small city from high-tech control rooms, monitoring an array of screens and other sophisticated monitors which are feeding them streams of video and data – watching to see that everything goes as it should – and responding fast if anything doesn’t (you can read more about their work in Bill Laster’s story below).

Chad Harbin is a pressure equipment inspector at Phillips 66 Wood River Refinery (which is actually on the Mississippi River, in southern Illinois).

Chad started his working life after high school – with a six-year stint in the Navy.  By the time he was done, he was running the power systems for the entire ship (a guided-missile frigate) – from the engines, the weapons, the navigation gear, even the kitchen.

He didn’t know it then, but that set him up nicely to be the guy in charge of keeping a refinery running safely – which at Wood River includes two fluid catalytic cracking units, two delayed coking units, hydrocracking, alkylation, naphtha and sulfur recovery (and yes, he has to know what all those things mean). 

Outside, all around the facility, inspectors and gaugers, boiler operators and other workers are on the job.  Overseeing and operating pumps and furnaces, compressors and valves, turning them on, adjusting them, turning them off – and monitoring everything. At times, they can even be 200 feet up in the air, on top of a tower to adjust a valve – or down on solid ground, tweaking the temperature and pressure inside a unit.  And not everything an employee needs to know is in a book – paying attention to what they see, and smell, and hear can be just as essential to keeping a facility running safely and reliably.

Bill Laster is a refinery shift leader at Chevron’s El Segundo Refinery (in LA, just south of the airport).

Bill started as a trainee with Chevron, almost 40 years ago.  Compared to the refinery though, he’s just a kid.  El Segundo is 108 years old in 2019.

His job takes him inside “Mission Control” for the refinery – the place where they keep tabs on everything that’s going on.  Inside that 38,000 square foot room – are 36 big-screen monitors, seven miles of fiber optic cable, 24 miles of communications cables and a staff that is on the job 24/7 – tracking reports from operators and inspectors out in the plant ,and data from automated censors.  And his work takes him outside, all over the refinery – to see with his own eyes what’s going on, and to offer help wherever that might be needed – keeping refinery workers safe, as well as the facility’s LA neighbors.

And Bill’s leadership is especially important today because when El Segundo was built, it was almost on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and nothing else.  But in today’s Los Angeles, residential neighborhoods now come right up to the refinery, and LA International Airport (which didn’t exist way back when), is also just next door.

It’s work that is challenging (there’s a lot going on out there) and important (these are the refineries that fuel our cars and trucks, buses, ships and planes – and the petrochemical plants that make the stuff of everyday life possible — smart phones and laptops, bicycles, dish soap and food wrap — and the stuff of future life too, like artificial heart valves, exoskeletons and space suits and much more).

Krystal Garcia is an instrument technician with INEOS, a petrochemical company (producing plastics that are used in making home insulation, medicines, food packaging and lots more).  When she started at the INEOS plant in Houston, as Krystal says, she didn’t even know what a wrench was (she’d been working as a paralegal).

She knows now though — after two years of a full-time, paid apprenticeship — where she worked in the plant and earned an associate degree in instrumentation at the same time.

Her day job is to keep things running — inside and outside at the plant — monitoring temperature and pressure and flow rate — adjusting temperature and pressure and flow rate — testing equipment and repairing it — driving a forklift, climbing a tower, showing up in the middle of the night when something unexpected happens, doing something different every day.

And all of these good jobs – are also well-paying jobs.  The average salary for a refinery worker is $135,000 a year, which is more than twice the U.S. average.  On the petrochemicals side of the fuels and petrochemical business, workers there do pretty well too – with an average salary of over $127,000 a year.

You’ll find these jobs all across the country too, as these industries continue to grow – on the Gulf Coast, in Appalachia, in the Great Plains and in the Southwest.  And while, like any business, you don’t start at the top – the fuels and petrochemical industries offer plenty of opportunities to move up.  Bill Laster, for instance, is a refinery shift leader now (that’s a management level job) – but he started as an operator trainee, straight out of high school.

About one of every ten workers in the fuel and petrochemical industries, incidentally, is a veteran.  Turns out that a lot of men and women who have served our country in the armed forces, find their skills and experience to be a good fit in the industries: their leadership abilities, time spent working on a team, being at home with taking responsibility and handling pressure, and sometimes, like Chad Harbin, their day to day work in the military.  And companies across the fuel and petrochemical industries are actively recruiting vets, and working with them to make the transition to job success as a civilian.

Roughly a third of the kids who graduate high school, don’t go on to college (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).  If that’s the path you (or your kids) choose – or for kids who go for a two-year technical degree (nothing against the ivy-covered halls, by the way – and there’s jobs for those grads too) – there are still places, that have good, skilled jobs – and are looking for workers.  And those fuels and petrochemical industries – are where you might want to look, if you’re looking for work.