Making the transition from ChE student to ChE professional means entering a new phase of education. Some is from books or continuing-education courses, but a lot is from colleagues and on-the-job experience. This series listens to recent hires and their mentors from different jobs, industries, and locations. They'll tell us what they've found they had to learn.
Mariam Al-Meer is with Shell at its Pearl gas-to-liquids plant on the Persian Gulf in northern Qatar. Shell is a leader in converting gas to a wide range of products through Fischer-Tropsch technologies. The Pearl facility, a joint development by Qatar Petroleum and Shell, is the largest GTL plant in the world. It is expected to process about three billion barrels-of-oil-equivalent over its lifetime from a gas field that has been estimated to contain about 15% of the worldwide gas resources. Mariam is in her second year of work there following her B.S. ChE degree from Texas A&M at Qatar. While a student officer in the AIChE Student Chapter, she participated in the 2010 AIChE Annual Student Conference at Salt Lake City, Utah. For her first two to three years at Shell, she is in a rotation of jobs and formal mentoring through the Shell Graduate Programme (SGP), a common approach to getting started used by large companies. Her present "technical coach" is Bart Vermeer, senior GTL technologist with Shell.
In her first year, she has had diverse experiences, including monitoring and troubleshooting, alarm reviews and management, involvement in HAZOPs and process safety reviews, and carrying out mass balances over the area. Here, Mariam reflects on skills and expertise she needed or had to learn that went beyond what she had as a student:
The main skills I had to learn revolved around operation of units. Taking distillation as an example, university introduced me to the design of distillation columns. At Pearl, I had to learn how column performance is monitored and how to optimize such performance while taking its impact on downstream units into consideration at all times. I also had to learn how process safety is managed on site. HAZOPs are carried out by multi-disciplined teams working together and brainstorming to identify and assess hazards, examining certain sections of a plant in depth, so one can only fully learn the methods and techniques used in such studies by sitting through them. I remember having to put together a process and instrumentation diagram as part of the chemical engineering senior design project prior to graduation. That was a good introduction to P&IDs, but I had to learn a lot more at work with regards to their interpretation. As an example, interaction with process control engineers is part of a technologist's role. Consequently, I had to learn how to read P&IDs and understand the controls described on them.
Mariam also found herself needing to learn about using statistics:
I could have taken a course on statistics as an elective at university, but I took other courses. While tracking certain events on site (e.g., flaring), I needed to use normal distributions as part of tracking performance, so I also had to learn some statistical methods.
In common with many new hires, she found new appreciation of the role of communication skills:
Being able to communicate well and to pass on a message in a concise yet clear way is important. In process technology, there is a lot of interaction with departments such as process control, maintenance, and operations. I have had to sharpen my communication skills through work. Feedback on e-mails and reports I write has helped me learn where I need to improve.
Perspectives of Mariam's technical coach
Bart Vermeer came to Qatar in 2011 and now is primarily responsible for the actual Fischer-Tropsch gas-to-liquids reactors and associated units. He was originally from the Caribbean (Cura?ao), but his Dutch parents returned with him to The Netherlands when he was young. He studied at TU Delft, Netherlands, earning his BSc '05 & MSc '06 in chemical engineering. Coming out of school, he began work at Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam (STCA) as a gas conversion technologist, doing process/catalyst/ reactor development as well as operational- and equipment engineering/construction support. He reflected on Mariam's experience in particular and his own observations in general:
With Mariam fresh out of university, it was very clear that she came prepared with a diverse and comprehensive skillset combined with a solid foundation in chemical engineering principles. However, as for any graduate entering an operational environment, it is to a very large extent the practical side of chemical engineering where the greatest challenges and (initial) development needs lie. As a Process Technologist, Mariam is responsible for plant units that require both day-to-day attention - optimization, ensuring stability, reliability and operability - as well as study for mid- and long-term improvement. Especially the first area (short-term troubleshooting and operation) is one where in the first year(s) of having an operational role the steepest learning curve lies; so also for Mariam. Graduates taking up these types of positions typically have strong conceptual, scientific, and theoretical backgrounds. Many skills that come into play are normally not addressed in-depth within university curricula but are better developed by dedicated courses and actual experience in the workplace. Some examples are:
- Process hardware. Major equipment items like columns, vessels, and reactors have the highest visibility in university studies, but new employees must learn details about many specialized items like control valves, line tracing, instruments, strainers, steam traps, gaskets, sampling stations, and so on. For each, a whole spectrum of different technologies and configurations is available, tailored towards the specific services. Engineers from other disciplines have dedicated roles at a typical site, but a chemical engineering technologist is expected to be able to integrate all these aspects into a full process understanding.
- Process safety and safeguarding - not just an attitude of safeness but also the assessment and decision processes, hardware and equipment design issues (relief valves, instrumentation configuration, material selection), and the safety-management systems. This is one field that could and should receive more attention in universities.
- Personal safety in a processing environment. There are ever-present risks that need to be managed when working in a process environment, such as extremely high or low pressures and temperatures, toxic and highly acidic/alkaline components, flammable and/or explosive compounds, high-noise areas, and working at height. Care goes beyond process and plant design and operation, but it extends to personal protective equipment, permitting systems, emergency response plans, gas monitoring, awareness of MSDSs, and exposure limits, all supported again by safety-management systems.
- Process dynamics. Although dynamic process simulators are available to study typical units, every actual process has very specific and often unique operating windows and nonlinear process sensitivities. Also, it is vital to understand the interplay among process-parameter changes, controller responses, actual process response and impacts on downstream and upstream equipment. Often it is management of the major non-steady state operating modes that is most important: start-ups, shut-downs, ramp-ups, slow-downs, and trips.
Beyond learning new technical skills
Bart also emphasized the way that most new hires are surprised at the importance of communications and good work habits. He remarked:
Working in a process environment requires a dynamic work mentality all day, every day. Timeframes for addressing issues can differ from hours or less for troubleshooting up to months or years for big projects. Day-to-day prioritization and time management are keys, and directly translate into the role technologists play in the workplace. They need to switch between roles as project/investigation leader, engineer, operations advisor, administrator, strategist and advising technical expert. Growing into this work style is challenging and is not for everyone, but it is definitely one of the most satisfying aspects of becoming a process technologist.
Finally, Bart offered reassurances to Mariam and all new hires about the need to keep learning:
As you start working, recognize you have much to learn yet. Rest assured, this goes for everyone around you as well. No one ever stops learning professionally. This is certainly also recognized for new graduates - you are not expected to be immediate experts. As such, do not be afraid to ask questions. This is perfectly fine, well received and logically expected. You'd be surprised how eager colleagues are to share their experience. Benefit from the experience of colleagues at all levels. The operator who has 20 years of experience will know the intricacies of process units you yourself will also be working on. At the same time, you will find that senior management will also strongly support your further development.
Observations in conclusion
Mariam's and Bart's experiences show how well school prepared them - up to a point. For experienced chemical engineers, it isn't surprising that many technical skills are learned after they get out of school, given that so many aspects are industry-specific or job-specific. Also, this second phase of education isn't just through more coursework, although sometimes targeted short courses or webinars can be just what is needed. As Bart emphasized, colleagues may be sources of advice or even tutorials. Whether those colleagues are above, below, or alongside you in the management hierarchy, they can teach you a lot, and you have an obligation to teach them what you know as well.