The fuel and petrochemical industries careers offer something for everyone

Workforce |  5 min. read

Supercomputers?  Check.

VR headsets?  Check.

Drones?  Check.

Spectrometers?  Check.

3D-printers?  Check.

Where would you find all those tools in use at the same time?

We’re not thinking of NASA.  Google?  Not there either.  MIT?  That would be no.

Here’s another batch of clues:

Chemists?  Check.

Programmers?  Check.

Engineers?  Check.

Meteorologists?  Check.

Futurists?  Check.

Where would you find all of those professionals at work in the same place?

No, we’re not thinking of IBM.  Not Harvard either.  And no, not the CIA.

Let’s try one last round of clues:

Hard hats?  Check.

Wildlife biologists?  Check.

Computer-assisted design (CAD)?  Check.

Artificial Intelligence?  Check.

Design Engineers?  Check.

Where you’ll find all these professions and all these tools under the same roof — would be America’s fuel and petrochemical industries.

Ok, we know that was probably not the answer you were expecting.

Supercomputers:  All the big names in America’s fuel and petrochemical industries use them.  And five of the fastest supercomputers in the world, are owned and operated by companies in these industries.

And it is true that once upon a time, guys like “Dry Hole Slick” WERE the face of the business — and the only thing on those lists above you might have found back then, was a hard hat.  Maybe.

But that was then.  Today, the fuel and petrochemical industries are a place where you use both your hands AND your head.  Now PhDs and petaflops and polymers are as much a part of the work as pipelines and pumps and pick-ups.  The STEM fields — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — are all fields critical to the work of developing and producing modern fuels and petrochemicals (and they’re pretty important to all of us and ensuring that our nation is able to meet the challenges of the 21st century).

Bulletproof vests and helmets?  A parachute that can land a spacecraft on Mars?  A 3D-printed hand?  They’re all made from the same materials, the right materials — advanced polymers, made from petrochemicals, made from oil and natural gas.

So Big Data and big ideas are an important part of the work in this 21st century.  One thing hasn’t changed though — this is still a business which actually makes things that matter and that we use on a daily basis:

Making things like the gasoline and diesel and jet fuels that keep almost everything that moves, moving,  Cars, motorcycles, buses, trucks, trains, planes and ships — almost all of them use these fuels (and lubricants produced from oil).

And making things like the petrochemicals that are the building blocks for — well, life in the 21st century:  our shirts and shorts and shoes, our tablets and phones and TVs, our cars and soccer balls and tennis rackets, the equipment in the modern ER and most of what’s in our medicine cabinet, the stuff our houses and streets are made of, the suits astronauts wear in space and the prosthetic hand a little girl wears to play baseball.

Laura Nielsen’s day job, is figuring out how to put the sun to work.  She works at the Phillips 66 Research Center in Bartlesville, Oklahoma –designing and creating the polymers that go into solar cells (not surprising, when you know those polymers are made from petrochemicals):  the business end of solar panels, where the sun’s energy is soaked up and turned into electricity.

 And she’s pretty good at it too.  That’s why the American Chemical Society gave her the National Chemical Technician Award earlier this year.  She also has 5 patents to her name, at last counting.  And if you’re wondering, a B.S. in Chemistry was how she got her start.

The people who work in the fuels and petrochemical industries, make all those things, and a lot, lot more.  Head AND hands, working together.

Her official job is in Strategic Planning and Public Policy, but you could call Hannah Zunker a futurist.  That is, her job at Valero’s headquarters in San Antonio, Texas — is figuring out what’s coming next:  in the fuels industry. In the world of transportation, and in the world, period.  Then figuring out what her company needs to be doing.

Of course, since the future hasn’t happened yet, there’s no standard job training for that position.  In her case, she also started with a degree in chemistry, and then branched out into, well, just about everything — since her job now requires keeping tabs on the weather, the economy, the political situation here and abroad, scientific research, new technologies…and anything else she can think of.

And who are those people?  Open the book of STEM fields, and put your finger down — almost anywhere:

They are process control engineers and design engineers, electrical engineers, chemical engineers and mechanical engineers and structural engineers.

If you’re a runner, or a walker, or someone who’s on their feet a lot for work, you’ll be glad to know that Dr. Syed Ashraf is on the job.  A senior research scientist for BASF (the chemical manufacturer) in Wyandotte, Michigan — one of his specialties in the lab, is polyurethane foams used in shoes.  All sorts of shoes:  running shoes, walking shoes, casual shoes, hiking shoes, work boots, shower slippers (and inserts for even more shoes).

His path to the laboratory at BASF started in Bangladesh, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemical Engineering — led next to Sweden for a Master’s in Process Engineering — and then to Michigan for a Master’s in Polymer Chemistry, followed by a Ph.D. in Materials Sciences.  So while his work at BASF has been primarily with materials like polyurethane — it’s not surprising to learn he hasn’t only used his knowledge of polymers to keep us comfortable on our feet (though, thanks for that!).  We won’t claim to have followed every word, but in Imprinted polymers for the removal of heavy metal ions from water, you can read about his work using polymers to clean wastewater (and thanks for that too).

They are also seismologists and meteorologists, chemists and mathematicians and researchers, computer programmers and wildlife biologists and machine learning engineers, data scientists and robotics engineers, cybersecurity analysts and environmental engineers.  (And some non-STEM fields too:  like economists, and even the occasional futurist.)

So if your idea of good work means a chance to work with the most modern scientific and information technology — you’d be in the right place here.  If your idea of good work means a place to use your degree in chemistry or physics or engineering or robotics — you’d be in the right place.  And if your idea of good work means work that isn’t boring and work that does matter — yes, you’d be in the right place.

The money’s good too.  Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported: “most companies that pay six figures to the majority of their workers aren’t big banks or money managers … More than 100 companies in the S&P 500 routinely awarded employees $100,000 or more in 2017… [and] Nearly half of those were in the energy industry…” (Most of the other companies were tech or biotech.)

These are also jobs with pensions and a full slate of benefits, in a stable industry with workplaces around the country, and for that matter, around the world (if you like the idea of travel).

True, there’s no free cafeteria, but the lab is well-stocked — and women and men in the industry, regularly talk about it being a place where yes, you work hard — but also where you find a sensible and satisfying work-life balance (so maybe that offsets having to buy your own yogurt for lunch).

Ever listen to music?  Hip hop or pop, techno or house, R&B, even country (ok, not opera) — Auto-Tune makes the sound you hear.  And Auto-Tune came right out of the oil industry (it was invented by a guy who learned all about sound waves, by “mapping” what’s underground.)

So if you’re in college, and your interests are anywhere in the STEM fields — odds are you’d find challenging, important, and well-rewarded work — in America’s fuel and petrochemical industries.