How a Refinery’s neighbors became its future workforce

Workforce |  4 min. read

Born and raised into a low-income family in San Pablo, Calif., about 30 minutes east of San Francisco, Yesenia Pineda struggled to find a sustainable career after leaving high school. She lacked the money and support to complete a college degree. At the time, she didn’t think to ask whether the area’s largest employer, the Chevron Richmond Refinery, was hiring. She always thought applicants needed at least a college degree to qualify for jobs at Chevron, known to provide high wages and good benefits.

Yesenia Pineda

“I’ve known Chevron all my life,” Pineda said. “You have to be a super genius with a college background. Normal people don’t go to work there.”

Or so she thought. One day, while feeling stifled by an unfulfilling job, she was invited to an orientation for a career program.

“Where are we going?” she remembered asking her classmate.

“To attend a training program that helps people get jobs at places like Chevron,” he said.

Pineda was skeptical, but she agreed to attend – a decision that has changed her life in the same way it had changed hundreds of lives before her.

After learning about the Regional Occupational Program, a statewide vocational training program that prepares Californians for success careers in a wide variety of fields including the fuels and petrochemical industries, Pineda found out she didn’t need to be a genius, or even have college pedigree, to qualify for opportunities at Chevron. What she needed was just five months of dedication. And the best part, there was no cost for Pineda to participate.

While working the late shift full time, Pineda completed the intensive, the ROP Plant Process Operator course. It paid off – literally. Last year, she was hired into the Chevron Refinery’s Operator Trainee Program. It’s a lucrative career track, as Process Operator annual salaries in the refining industry range from $94,363 to $135,742.

And now, Pineda is enjoying a new normal.

An industry hungry for workers

The fuels and petrochemical industries are among the nation’s highest paying, in large part because the demand for skilled workers is also among the highest. Companies that comprise the fuels and petrochemical industries invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support workforce development and training programs that provide people with the training and skills needed for jobs in this sector.

The problem, of course, is plants such as the Richmond Refinery don’t just need workers tomorrow – they needs them today.

Established in 1978, the Chevron program is a partnership with the Contra Costa County Office of Education (CCCOE). For 18 weeks in classes offered both during the afternoons and evenings, retired and current Chevron workers provide local residents with intensive training on the skills needed for a career in the fuel and petrochemical industries. To date, nearly 900 people have graduated from the program, which boasts a strong track record for placing graduates in jobs not just at the Chevron Refinery, but also other local facilities owned by Shell, Tesoro, Valero and Phillips 66.

Jeff Brauning, who runs student programs for CCCOE,” called the public-private partnership “a wonderful example of how Industry and Education can work together to provide valuable potentially life changing skills to local community members.”

Brauning said the outcomes he sees regularly from this ROP program is “the reason we all go into education.”

“Students who graduate from this program and are hired by the local refineries truly have their lives changed,” he said. “Many of them have financial stability, retirement and benefits for themselves and their families for the first time in their lives.”

And along the way, they gain more than important technical skills. The program offers training in communication and teamwork skills, with job safety emphasized throughout.

Toward the end of the program, Chevron Refinery workers, including some ROP graduates, conduct mock interviews as part of training in the job hiring process.

Perhaps most importantly, students build confidence in the program. That can be attributed to longtime instructors Mike Joyce, who teaches the Process Plant Operator (PPO) track of the ROP program, and John Ghiringelli, who instructs the Industrial Maintenance Mechanic (IMM) program.

Both instructors, who also happen to be employees at the Chevron Refinery, are wildly popular among students, Brauning said. They, themselves, are also graduates of the program. Joyce graduated from the program just over 40 years ago.

“John and I are proof that this works – we came up through this program too,” he said.

Joyce would eventually land what he called “the best job ever” at Chevron, back when it was called Standard Oil of California. He became a trainer in order to give back.

Give it a try

Pineda said she’s finally feeling fulfilled about her career and its trajectory.

“The people [at the Chevron Refinery] have been amazing; I have a really good group, really good trainer,” Pineda said. “Being a minority and being a woman, I thought that it might be a challenge, but I came to find out everyone is really accepting. They look out for each other, have each other’s back, and want each other to succeed.”

While the work, of course, can be challenging, Pineda said “it has given me a respect for what’s being done, for all the work that goes into putting gas in your vehicle.”

Her advice for others in her community looking for jobs in the fuels and petrochemical industries: “Give it a try.”

“It difficult dedicating five months to something but it’s also a great opportunity to change your life,” Pineda said. “A lot of people from our community don’t have those options.”

To learn more about Chevron’s ROP program, click here.


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