Developing and enabling the next generation of refinery process engineers

Changing viewpoints of engineering as a career path, generational priorities and global competition are affecting the ability of refiners and petrochemical firms to recruit, retain and develop process engineering talent

Robert Ohmes, KBC Advanced Technologies

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Article Summary

In particular, the coming retirement of the baby boomer generation, along with the entrance of generation Y/millenniums into the workforce, is creating an industry-wide experience gap. Increased public scrutiny of the refining industry, regulatory control and evolving technology are driving the desire and requirement to better utilise process engineering skill sets.

To meet these challenges, refiners need a guiding system and philosophy to encourage process engineering excellence. This article will examine one potential methodology for developing, organising and maintaining a process engineering best practice standard. Through such activities as benchmarking, gap analysis and unit monitoring, organisations can help process engineers meet production and economics targets. Technology best practice standards, training, mentoring, enhanced decision-making tools and knowledge retention can quickly move new engineers along the learning and experience curves. Proactive career development and technical expertise preservation help retain engineering talent. Ultimately, an effective process engineering best practice standard promotes safe, reliable and profitable production in the modern refinery or petrochemical facility.

The refining and petrochemical industries have entered an age where a variety of factors are influencing the preferences of the next generation of process engineers. A shift is occurring in the attitude and outlook of generation X and Y that should be properly understood by the industries. An increased level of questioning, a need for greater influence in the workplace, and a desire for non-traditional compensation and benefits characterise this shift. While such attitudes may seem foreign to those who have established careers and decades of work experience, these emerging viewpoints are common throughout the next generation of working professionals. By understanding how these new employees work and think, the industry can harness the benefits that they bring.

One major difference between the baby boomers and the generation X and Y groups is that, upon graduation, many have not learned much about struggle or sacrifice.1 This situation can lead to a sense of entitlement and may cause misunderstandings between employers and new employees with respect to offering increased responsibility and compensation. Perhaps another effect of this mindset is that these young employees lack a proper understanding of shift work and its importance. However different or frustrating these mindsets may appear, facility leadership teams should adapt their corporate structures to meet the needs of the next generation of process engineers. Some 64 million skilled workers will retire by the end of this decade and companies will need to go the extra mile to replace them, even if it means adjusting internal systems to align with new expectations.1 The current age demographic of energy industry professionals is shown in Figure 1.

The retirement of the baby boomer generation, coupled with an experience gap, causes one to pause and consider what results may occur from this. First and foremost, this situation represents a loss in experience and knowledge. Ideas, 
solutions and problem-solving techniques that can be quickly applied by highly experienced process engineers may take longer to develop or implement by the new staff. Employers should develop solutions for the transfer and retention of these vast deposits of knowledge and can work with new process engineers to achieve this knowledge collection.

Table 1 summarises some key differences among baby boomers, generation X and millennium generations. The baby boomer generation values company loyalty and personal sacrifice, born out of the classic work ethic that “hard work pays off”. However, when it comes to loyalty, generation X and Y have different priorities — generally in the order of their families, friends, communities, co-workers and then the company.1 The next generation of process engineers have a much wider variety of career and academic opportunities available to them. Whether it is a different or emerging industry that can utilise chemical engineers, graduate school, medical school, an MBA, or perhaps a complete career shift, so many options may leave fewer people making a choice to enter the refining and petrochemical industries.

Employers may struggle to recruit and retain new staff due to the industry’s poor public image, lower mechanical aptitude among graduates, and an increasing variety of career and academic options for graduates. Other draws, such as having a greater social impact, is something employers must compete with. At the current time, the “green movement” is very strong and more companies are expanding or adjusting not only their services and products, but also corporate stance, to become environmentally friendly.

A proper understanding of these issues is essential if the energy industry is to embrace the challenges, and opportunities, that come with the next generation of process engineers. Based on this background, several opportunities surface that can enhance the overall organisational performance as the millennium generation is brought into the refining and petrochemical industries:
• Increased workforce diversity and therefore increased range of thinking and problem-solving capabilities
• Improved organisational efficiency through rethinking how we work
• Improved integration and utilisation of technology to increase efficiency
• Institutionalised experience that becomes a tangible asset of the company
• Optimised retention strategies given current market dynamics.

With this background in mind, the following methodology is proposed and discussed as a mechanism to integrate the millennium staff into an organisation and address these challenges and opportunities.

The following sections highlight the aspects of effective process engineering performance as well as outlining a methodology for developing and implementing a process engineering best practice standard.

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