Thanks to the continued oil and gas boom, there is a growing demand for good workers at refineries. Here's what you need to know to get your foot in the door.
Many of the same skills that make people good support services employees in the oilfields give them an edge to become refinery operators. And, like the promising future of work in the oilfields, there is a big demand for good workers at refineries, says John Galiotos, dean of Energy & Manufacturing Institute with the Lone Star College System in Houston.
Refinery jobs appeal to workers who don’t want to work constantly outdoors in the elements in remote areas far from their families. In many instances, refineries are closer to towns and workers’ homes. Pay is good, starting at $60,000, plus potential for advancement to higher positions and overtime with six figure salaries.
“They need to be able to follow directions,” Galiotos says of people interested in becoming refinery operators.
It’s important to be observant, pay attention to details, report problems and respond according to protocol: Do motors or pumps sound right? Is there corrosion? Is there a smoke or a gas leak? What are the procedures to follow?
Operators follow specific routines to monitor valves, heat exchangers, compressors, fluids separators, and gauges and pumps to maintain equipment and recognize when something is not working right. Senior operators work with new operators for on-the-job training in various jobs including electrical, communications and engineering.
Galiotos says refinery operators need some basic education and skills:
- Basic math (ex: able to balance a checkbook or buy/sell a house)
- Ability to communicate verbally
- Write legibly
- The right attitude: Be on time, reliable, dependable and credible
- Critical and analytical thinking skills to logically troubleshoot plant equipment
- Be willing to relocate
Refinery hires must also have graduated from high school or obtained a GED, and have no criminal background.
Finally, workers must always be aware of the number one concern on any job in the oilfield. “Safety is always first,” Galiotos says. “In a refinery — on the manufacturing side that involves fluid, electricity, flammable vapors and troubleshooting — safety is paramount as it also applies at the whole refinery site. Operators must respond appropriately when safety issues are detected.”
While refineries link new operators with senior operators for on-the-job training, workers who take classes and earn certifications increase their chances of being hired. The oil industry and community colleges, such as the one where Galiotos teaches, work together to develop curriculum that matches the daily tasks of refinery operators.
Galiotos notes that the general philosophy for relevant education and training programs is that 30 percent of the courses are theoretical and can be learned from online courses — basic theory, math, physics and simulations, for example. But refineries prefer that 70 percent of the courses be hands-on — taught in labs. Colleges offer flexible class scheduling to meet the needs of working students: classes at 6 a.m., compressed courses, regularly recurring courses students can fit in during a week off.
For support services workers interested in seeing if refinery work is a good fit for them, Galiotos suggests starting with classes such as: Introduction to Process Technology, HSE, Chemical Plants and Refineries, Process Instrumentation, Unit Operations and Troubleshooting. Useful certifications to earn include: OSHA, CPT and Plant Operations.
Most regions that drill for oil or refine oil have colleges and training available. If not, there are training programs online. For example, in addition to classroom teaching in Texas, Galiotos is the instructor for the 400-hour Oil Refinery Operations course at ed2go.com. The program covers 22 topics from physics to industrial valves to distillation technology.
Invest in yourself
Just as there is a wide range of jobs in the oilfields, there are a variety of refinery operator positions in the refinery as well as along the pipeline.
“The first two or three years are an investment,” Galiotos says. “To work inside, first you have to learn the outside operations and work in various weather conditions. The more certifications or certificates of competencies the person has are much more important than a bachelor’s degree.”
In many cases, refinery companies will help pay for education for motivated employees to earn bachelor’s and even a master’s degrees to work their way up.
“The knowledge can be transferred to other areas,” Galiotos adds. The skills that deal with flow level, temperature and pressure control devices are used in many other industries such as food processing, and utility and recycling plants.
While it’s helpful to have options in many fields, Galiotos emphasizes that people who like working in the oil industry, should have plenty of job opportunities for years to come. There is a great need for oil refinery workers with the right attitude and skills.