A new breed of operators

By Agnes Shanley, Managing Editor

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With all the downsizing going on today, there's one group of people whose jobs promise to be secure: skilled process operators and control technicians for chemical processing plants. These paraprofessionals are in short supply today, and the need for them will be greater than ever as more baby boomers retire over the next ten years.

There are just a few problems. First and foremost, as Eastman Chemical CEO Brian Ferguson points out in his exclusive Chemical Processing op-ed in "In the News" (November 2003), most U.S. high schools aren't preparing their graduates to step directly into skilled jobs. Allowing upperclassmen to designate core courses as "electives" has watered down curricula and led to serious deficiencies in math, science, computer and communications skills.

In fact, according to the National Association of Manufacturers and Labor Department statistics, if the situation doesn't change, 40% of the entry-level labor force will not have the skills they need to get a job in the "new economy." And this includes college graduates, particularly that minority of liberal arts students who avoid math, science and computer courses like the plague.

Secondly, the term "manufacturing" has become an anathema to most young people, conjuring up visions of rust belt decay and dead-end assembly-line jobs. However, manufacturing, at least that portion of it that remains onshore, is changing, particularly in the process industries, which are using more-advanced control platforms and communications tools requiring more complex skill sets and decisionmaking ability.

Where, in the past, there was a sharp distinction between the white collar and the blue collar world, today, at the manufacturing plant level, those boundaries have started to blur as blue-collar jobs evolve into "gold collar" positions requiring strong basic skills, excellent communications, comfort with computers and basic scientific principles, and the ability to work effectively as part of a team.

Not a Junior Role

The training grounds for this new paraprofessional are not four-year colleges, but community colleges offering two-year Associates Degrees in process operations and instrumentation.

Recognizing the need to reach out to the young people in their own back yards, and the importance of helping to shape programs that will prepare them to work, more chemical and petrochemical companies, including Dow, DuPont and BP, have been partnering with local schools, and working with groups such as the Center for the Advancement of Process Technology (CAPT) in Texas, which met last month to discuss future trends and best practices.

The results of these partnerships have been encouraging. More students are enrolling in programs, and more chemical processing companies are requiring that entry-level operator hires either have, or get, two-year degrees. Dow Chemical, for example, insists that all new hires in its site logistics department receive their AAS degrees within five years of hire. A number of online computer courses have been developed to facilitate this.

The new programs offer return on investment, both for employers and students. BP training director John Payne says the programs have saved his company a tremendous amount of training time and streamlined the hiring process. Hiring two-year-degree holders saved $3,375 per person in training costs at BP's Texas City facility, and allowed the new hires to complete qualification requirements 40% faster than those without the degrees, saving $13,000 in overtime. The degreed individuals also had a 37% better safety performance record he says. In general, throughout BP, assuming 638 new hires, Payne says, the savings from hiring certified two-year-degree holders would exceed $5 million.

The skills of those with two-year degrees were noticeably better than those of the high-school graduates. At its Citgo facility in Lake Charles, BP saw a 28% improvement in learning ability and arithmetic reasoning, an 81% improvement in knowledge of chemistry, and 63% improvement in mechanical skills.

Graduates of the programs, many of them in their late 20s, also see positive returns, including starting salaries that rival those of starting engineers. Instead of being "locked in" to a subsidiary position, today's operators can increase skills through training and move into managerial positions.

Developing these programs has been a win-win for companies and for people who need challenging, well-paying work. If you haven't connected with local community colleges, or even high schools in your area, maybe you should. The future of the chemical processing labor force is in your hands.

As the paraprofessional career track becomes better defined,vocational training may lose whatever stigma it may have had in the past. As the labor market becomes more competitive, it's becoming clearer that there may not be any room for B- or C-average chemical engineering graduates, just as there hasn't been too much room for A-average graduates in anthropology. Vocational training will become more attractive to those who've only thought about "academic" training. Strong programs and close involvement of industry will ensure that the paraprofessional track develops a prestige and following of its own, and lead to a more diverse and interesting workforce in the future.

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