Training the Current and Next Generation of Refinery Engineers

By Winston Robbins, Ph.D.

The engineering expertise available in the petroleum refining industry is graying at an alarming rate.  The average age of engineers supporting refineries today is well over 50.  The decrease in refinery expertise began in the mid-1980’s when the price of crude oil sank to $8 per barrel and a number of veteran personnel elected early retirement.  In previous down cycles, the oil industry was able to quickly recover with the help of a strong, talented work force, whose members served as valuable mentors.  This is no longer the case; the industry is struggling with training young engineers while its remaining refinery experts are swamped with technical demands that limit their availability for mentoring.  Technical consultants are being employed to fill this gap. 

Demographic Shifts

The decrease in personnel available for mentoring can be attributed to three factors:

A combination of these factors with a perceived "old smokestack" industry inhibited hiring until after 2002 when the price of crude oil began its increase.  At this point, the remaining experts who are approaching retirement are so stretched handling their work that they have little time for mentoring.  It has been estimated that it takes 7-8 years for a young graduate to become fully capable in the industry.  The absence of qualified mentors may extend this period.  In the interim, less experienced engineers are handling tasks for which they are not necessarily qualified.

Engineer Mentoring

Mentoring is a learning partnership between an experienced engineer (mentor) and a new professional (protégé) for the purpose of sharing knowledge and information. It is an interpersonal relationship, outside the direct chain of command, where an individual receives advice, coaching and/or counseling that will benefit the company. Mentoring can be situational (short term, random, casual, creative, problem driven), informal (voluntary, personal, loose, responsive) or formal (institutional, information driven). Open communications (face-to-face or electronic) allow a protégé an opportunity to develop both personally and professionally. An effective mentor listens without questioning why, provides feedback without dictating, puts problems in perspective without building barriers, suggests ideas without discounting alternatives, and challenges decisions without negative criticism. Over time, a protégé may have many mentors depending on his development. While some relationships may last several years, they may last only days or months. A key to successful mentoring is management sanction and support.

Consultants as Mentors

In many ways the role of a mentor parallels that of a consultant:

For the Client, the Consultant

For the Protégé, the Mentor

Consultants are hired because of well-established, long term expertise in a field that includes “institutional memory” that may be hard to access otherwise. To compensate for the loss of internal experts, organizations have created “knowledge databases” using information technology. Often, the databases have been built rapidly with little evaluation of information quality. If there is no internal expert to guide a young engineer in gathering adequate background, progress in solving refinery problems can be slow. Even with data mining technology, an inexperienced engineer may face a large body of conflicting data before moving forward. An experienced consultant, on the other hand, knows how to interrogate the database to obtain relevant, reliable data and quickly move forward.

The role of consultant and mentor differ in two important ways. First and foremost, a consultant addresses problems directly while a mentor guides an individual addressing a problem. Second, a mentor can provide company career advice based on knowledge of the inner working of the organization while a consultant can only reflect on his experience to give feedback on career path options.

Consultant Mentoring Programs

Consultant mentoring supplements company training programs for young engineers. For years, industry has used academic consultants as mentors. Professors “working at the cutting edge” are contracted to visit company sites periodically and maintain informal networking contacts with those working in their fields of expertise. Similar programs may be established with experienced (often retired) experts who remain actively engaged in their field. This requires an interest on the part of a company to sponsor a consultant and a willingness by young employees to take advantage of his availability.

There are many ways that a company may structure a consultant mentoring program once it recognizes its need for outside expertise in a specific area. One approach is to contract the consultant for a number of site visits and a number of hours of availability over the course of a year. For example, a consultant may be hired for two site visits per year and to provide up to 40 hours of on-line or phone contact. The details of the site visit (seminar, face-to-face mentoring, management contacts, etc.) and remote contacts must be structured to satisfy company requirements.

Hired as a mentor, a consultant is available as a sounding board rather than as a problem solver. While making suggestions, asking questions, or pointing to alternate options as a technical consultant would, the mentor consultant refrains from pushing decisions and often plays the role of devil’s advocate to force the protégé to defend a position. By challenging him to “look at the big picture” (e.g., cost, scale, by-products, available space, materials of construction, institutional prejudice, etc.), the mentor helps his protégé develop into a valued, experienced engineer.

A consultant mentor program is a way for a young engineer to access expertise and experience that can help in his growth personally and professionally. Such a program also clearly benefits the company by helping it to develop the technical capabilities of its staff comparable to the way it was done in the “old days.”