Why Do Veterans Find A (Civilian) Home in the Fuels & Petrochemical Industry? Ask a Vet!

Workforce |  5 min. read

Imagine you are a 19-year-old – and your job is leading a squad of Marines in combat in Iraq.

Or picture coming straight out of high school and serving six-month tours at sea on a Navy ship, on counter-terrorism duty aboard a guided-missile frigate.

That experience can make your next job, a civilian job when you leave the service, a tough adjustment. Almost everything can feel different – the pace of the work, the meaning of the work, the commitment to the work, the people you work with. (Tough enough, in fact, that some veterans like to say your first successful civilian job is your second civilian job.)

We talked with a couple of vets recently to learn more about their transition out of uniform and into civilian life, and how they found that “second” job in the fuels and petrochemical industry with Phillips 66.

Today, Andrew Kiefer McNeill is a Territory Manager with Phillips 66 in Houston. But he was once that 19-year-old Marine going from Parris Island to two tours of duty in Iraq.

His unit, First Marine Division (the most decorated division in the Corps), was in Tikrit, Fallujah, Baghdad – names we came to know all too well.

Along with the days of boredom and misery that every soldier slogs through, “There are the days when, barely done being a kid, you are leading a group of men older than you who are depending on you to lead them through that day’s fighting, that tour’s mission, and home again.”

Which he did. McNeill didn’t go straight home after his tours of duty. He instead took off backpacking around the world and then to college where at 22, and an ex-Marine, “I felt like the world’s oldest student, sitting with 18-year-olds straight out of high school.”

Chad Harbin was an 18-year-old, straight out of high school in 2001. That was the year of 9/11 – and instead of a college classroom, he went to see a Navy recruiter to enlist.

These days, Harbin is a pressure equipment Inspector at the Phillips 66 Wood River Refinery in southern Illinois. But for six years after 9/11, his “office” was out at sea, on the USS Crommelin.

On a ship you live where you work, for six months at a time. And where you work for those six months, is a space about a football field-and-a-half long and 45 feet across. Your workplace has desks, chairs and computers, but it also comes with torpedoes, missiles and a couple of helicopters. In Harbin’s case, you have a couple hundred “co-workers,” who all depend on you to keep them going out in the middle of the ocean.

The job Harbin worked his way up to was “operating the power systems that ran – everything:  the ship’s engines, its weapons, its navigation gear, even its kitchen.” He was good at his job too, but eventually he became homesick and decided after six years to come back ashore.

In his exit interview (yes, it turns out the Navy has those too) his commanding officer (CO) told him that usually this was the moment he’d try to talk a good sailor (like Harbin) into staying. But his CO said that if Harbin wanted to go, he’d do just fine out there in the civilian world.

Once he started his first job though, Harbin wasn’t so sure. He’d been keeping a warship safe and afloat. He knew the power systems of a guided missile frigate inside and out. He was literally a defender of the free world.  And now he had a job that was – well, just a job.

McNeill knows that feeling too. “You have a job where you feel like you are making a difference, where you’re part of something bigger than yourself, that you are someone special and then, you end up as nothing.”

That’s when Phillips 66 entered the picture. Harbin had friends who worked at the Wood River Refinery and told him the refinery was hiring. McNeill had been laid off after the company he worked for was sold and agreed to meet up with a Phillips 66 rep at a “Hiring Our Heroes” event.

Today, about 20 percent of the workers Philips 66 hired for hourly positions are veterans, and that’s not by chance.  The company does targeted outreach to veterans, which includes using vets who are already working for the company.

As Harbin explained, that’s a big deal. “It can be tough for a veteran to explain to a civilian what he or she did in the service and how that translates to a new job. It was a big sense of relief when I was interviewing and found myself talking to an ex-Navy man, who didn’t have to be told how running the power systems on a ship was very much like the work at a refinery.”

For McNeill his “fairy godmother” was an HR Team Member at Phillips 66 who saw something special in him. She marched him and his resume past the standard interviews and took him directly to the people doing the hiring, and she stuck with him until he was in.

Phillips 66 also re-educates its hiring managers, teaching them how to interview veterans like Harbin and McNeill, and how to “translate” their skills and experience to the needs of the company. There’s also a “veterans’ portal” on the Phillips 66 website, where a veteran can plug in his or her skills to see how they would fit-in. When veterans start their new jobs at Phillips 66 the company connects them with an internal group of ex-servicemen and women in the company, who work with the new hires to make that transition successful.

That commitment to hiring veterans helped bring Harbin and McNeill into Phillips 66. But what helped keep them there was a different sort of commitment on the part of the company.

Chad Harbin described it as “a similar sense of purpose.  In the Navy, I looked after the power systems my shipmates depended upon – at the refinery (which is like a small city), my co-workers and our plant’s neighbors count on me to keep it running and keep it safe. At Wood River, part of my job is making the decision to shut down the whole plant, if that’s needed to keep things safe.”

Not everyone wants that level of responsibility – but Harbin walked through the refinery gate ready to be that guy, because he already had been that guy. And being “that guy,” Harbin said, means “I can shut down the whole plant if something isn’t safe.”

McNeill actually started out as a skeptic, not sure that Phillips 66 was really interested in vets, and him in particular. As he put it, “We walk out of the military into the civilian world feeling like the world owes you something, but the world doesn’t owe you anything.” But his Phillips 66 experience showed him the company was serious about veterans. And he tells vets now who are thinking about getting into the industry to just do it, “You can find a similar sense of purpose that you had in the service, though you do have to check your inner ‘drill instructor’ at the gate.”  (Civilians, he’s learned, aren’t Marines.)

Both men found that at a company whose values are “safety, honor, commitment,” where you are expected to do the right thing, where there is a sense of family among employees – that working for Phillips 66 has been that “second successful job” out in the civilian world.

And for Phillips 66, veterans bring first-rate skills that fit right into the industry. They also bring a willingness (and a capability) to take on responsibility and an ability to lead, an attitude that whatever task you start, you’re not done till it’s done, and a vast experience of problem-solving, even under unusually difficult conditions.

Oh, and maybe one other quality as well:  a sense of perspective. As McNeill says, when you’ve been under fire in a combat zone, “OMG, I dropped my phone, or Oh no, I got a flat tire – just aren’t that big a deal anymore.”