Yarelis Hernandez is a chemical engineer at one of the world’s largest refining companies

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.

Like father, like daughter (well, with a twist).

When Yarelis Hernandez was a little girl, growing up in Puerto Rico — she knew all about the business of making chemicals and the products made from chemicals.

Her dad worked in the industry — and she still remembers his work stories around the dinner table each night.  Especially she remembers what he used to say about engineers: “they don’t know anything,” he’d tell her, “and they don’t listen to workers like us.”  (Her dad was a pipefitter.)

That’s a vivid memory today because now, Yarelis Hernandez is one of those engineers — a chemical engineer.  In fact, she’s in charge of a chemical plant:  Site Manager at LyondellBasell’s Clinton, Iowa operation.

LyondellBasell is one the largest chemicals, plastics and refining companies in the world – with manufacturing plants across the United States and around the world.

“What do we do?”  Yarelis Hernandez explains, “We make things out of thin air!  The air — is the gas ethylene.  We add a catalyst, we add isobutane, hexene and hydrogen, we heat it, process it, and that ‘air’ becomes plastic pellets.  Those pellets go from here to businesses that use them to make car parts and milk jugs and lawn chairs — all sorts of things we all use every day, start here.”

But if you want to know more about her work, don’t call Hernandez on Friday mornings.  Those are for her “manager’s walkabout” — when she gets out in the field.  Hernandez takes a supervisor and an operator with her, walks the plant, shares with them what she sees that she likes and what needs attention.  And, remembering her dad, she LISTENS to them, so they also tell her what they are seeing that’s good, and what needs attention.

Then she heads inside to the plant’s control room (think NASA’s Mission Control, on a smaller scale — lots and lots of screens, with video and data from all across the plant) — talks to the control room staff about safety, and about operations in general, and on a recent visit, about Operation Clean Sweep — an industry-wide effort to keep those plastic pellets where they belong, and out of streams, rivers and oceans.

Back before she got started in the industry, when Hernandez was young, “I didn’t call it ‘chemical engineering’, but hearing my dad’s stories about his work — I knew I was interested in that kind of work.”

Then in seventh grade, there was a university-sponsored program that was for girls and boys interested in STEM (that’s of course shorthand for science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

“So we would spend our Saturdays learning about engineering — every Saturday a different engineer would come to talk to us about what they did — and we got $5!”

Now?  “I LOVE this industry.  My dad loved this industry too, and he could have been an engineer — if he’d had the opportunity, which he did not.  So when I got the chance, I took it (she was the first in her family to go to college).  Penn State offered me a scholarship as part of a program to get women and minorities into STEM fields — and (with my dad telling me to go!) left Puerto Rico for the first time.”

Maybe when you grow up on an island, the idea of traveling just comes naturally.  But after that first trip to Happy Valley (home to Penn State, if you’re not a Nittany Lion) — she was off.  And when Yarelis Hernandez travels, the whole family travels (that was a promise to her mom when she went off on that first trip to college).  So this year, her mom made her first trip to the Baltic Sea — cruising at age 81!

And if Yarelis Hernandez happens to be on your cruise ship, you’re in luck.  In addition to that engineering degree, she’s also got her dad’s way with his hands, so she can fix stuff.  Just in case that ship needs a little MacGyver-ing.