The advanced plastics Becky White’s plant creates are in every car in North America

Workforce |  3 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.

If you bought a new car this year, or last year, or the year before that — you probably know Becky White’s work.

Her name might not be familiar to you — but “our plastic is in just about every new car built in North America — it’s used to make bumpers and grills, dashboards and window trim — parts like that.”

And Becky White can say that, because she’s the boss at LyondellBasell’s polypropylene plant in Jackson, Tennessee.

(By the way, here’s something else to like about the work of Becky White and her people.  Those polypropylene parts in your new ride?  Because that plastic is lighter than the materials it replaced — your car gets better gas mileage.  And the new plastics are strong too…so you are safer than ever as well.)

To back up for a moment — we’ve found that when you ask women in the fuels and petrochemical industries how they got into the work, you don’t hear the same story twice — but you did hear some common themes.  Becky White discovered her love for math and chemistry in high school — and she’d set her sights on becoming a lab technician.  It was her chemistry teacher (a woman) who raised that bar a little higher — steering her toward chemical engineering.

That early mentoring, encouraging girls with an interest in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields to CHOOSE the STEM fields in college — we’ve heard the importance of that over and over.

Becky White has some history in this type of work now (she’s been at it 40 years, right out of college).  And when she started, it was a different world than it is today.  It DID feel like an old boys’ club sometimes, literally.  Back then there were very few women, outside of clerical jobs in the office.

That time, her first professional mentor was a male manager — who was a huge help to her in those early days.  But that was then.  Today, SHE is the mentor, for both women and men (in fact, the day after we talked to her, she had a couple of young men coming in to see “the life of an engineer”).

And today, the growing number of women in these industries, has made the industries better for women, and better, period.  Her advice?  “These are really good jobs for women in these plants.  A woman can do ANY job in these plants.  They are safe places to work.  They pay well.  And you don’t have to have an advanced degree to get a good job.”

(Some of the process operators, for instance, who help run the machinery — have two-year degrees, and in some instances, can work and go to school for that degree at the same time.)

But it isn’t just about production at the Jackson plant.  An important part of Becky White’s job is making sure everything operates cleanly and safely — for the plant’s employees and neighbors.  She told us about Operation Clean Sweep at their plant (the industry-wide effort to keep plastic out of waterways).

“We had a team come in and spend a day going over the plant — identifying areas where there could be a problem — recommending what we could now to prevent spills.”

When the polypropylene leaves Jackson, it’s in the form of pellets — small plastic pellets — so getting those into a big railcar, there’s the potential for spills.  But she was happy to tell us that even before the ‘Clean Sweep’ team gave her plant the once-over — they had ZERO loss of pellets.

Before we wrapped up our interview with Becky White, we asked if there was something people might be surprised to know about her.  There was, and we were (surprised).  In fact, she was wearing it — a Mickey Mouse watch.

“It’s a reminder not to take myself too seriously,” she told us — and she must have a pretty good sense of perspective, because she’s on either her fourth or fifth watch now.

But she had another surprise for us as well.  If you want to know what a golf cart would look like, if a golf cart took steroids — catch up with Becky White on the weekend.  You’ll find her off-roading in one (its official name is a Honda Pioneer, if you want to look it up online first).