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.
“Very early on, people ask what you want to be when you grow up. They say you’re good at math and science, so be an engineer. So, when somebody asked me what I wanted to be, I said a chemical engineer, and I saw people look at me with surprise. Some people were impressed, but some were like, I don’t know if you can do that, little girl.
“So I went to Mississippi State for a chemical engineering degree, got my degree, and started working — as an engineer.”
That was how Leslie Sullivan got started. Today, she serves as General Manager of Valero’s refinery in Meraux, La., not far from New Orleans.
Sullivan remembers an early mentor much closer to home who helped her on that path. Her dad.
He had studied chemistry and biology, and worked for another company in the fuels and petrochemical business – DuPont. That put him around engineers all the time. He knew them well, and he knew his daughter had what they had, so he became an early advocate for her interests in math and science. For years, her parents would cut out articles for her about women in science and research. They were the kind of parents who put action behind every ‘You go, girl” – following through on every word of encouragement.
Sullivan knows the fuels and petrochemical business has a reputation for being a man’s world, and she has had the experience of being the only woman in the room. But that’s never affected the way she’s been treated, or prevented opportunities from coming her way.
“I was pretty naïve when I started, but in my house growing up, there was always a place for me in that world,” she said. “I’ve truly had a good experience my entire career. I’ve never felt like I didn’t fit in.”
And to young women considering jobs in the fuels and petrochemical business, Sullivan’s answer is one word: “Yes!”
“It’s a very challenging and exciting career. You don’t know what’s going to happen each day, and there’s always a problem to solve. From early on, I just felt something very exciting about being in a refinery.”
If that’s an appealing work atmosphere, and you’ve got an interest in chemistry, engineering or STEM fields, Sullivan says it’s an excellent time to join the industry.
And if you find yourself at Valero, give her a call. When Sullivan started out, a number of Valero women took her and some of her young colleagues under their wings. Now, she’s a mentor herself, and regularly talks to colleagues around the country and around the world.
At Valero in particular, Sullivan’s career has revolved around teamwork and togetherness.
“One of the things I love about working in the refining industry is that there’s a huge feeling of family and camaraderie. The types of situations and scenarios we work in bring you closer together, and at times, we’re having to work long hours. So, it does bring that feeling of a family.”
Having spent 25 years in the refining industry, Sullivan isn’t just paying lip service when she talks about teamwork. In fact, even though her job now is overseeing the whole show, she makes a point to get out every day, walk the plant, and talk with the teams who are doing the important work of transforming oil into the products we all use every day.
And by the way, even if you’ve never met her, you might still have a connection to Sullivan. If you’ve flown in or out of Atlanta, the team at Valero’s Meraux refinery probably had a hand in that. They supply jet fuel to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. They also ship gasoline and diesel all the way up the East Coast, so their work keeps a lot of the country running. Maybe you, too.
Experience Valero: www.valero.com/careers