ChEs & EnvEs adapt to new requirements
Both economic and regulatory factors are shaping careers, and in some cases creating wonderful new opportunities
"I decided I'd help preserve the environment and make the planet a better place." – Dawn Coughlin, Hess Corp
By Dan Margherita
Senior Contributing Editor
The demand for chemical and environmental engineers is coming back slowly but surely. This is the assessment of Dr David Harwell, director of career management and development at the American Chemical Society (ACS, acs.org, Washington, DC). "The unemployment rate among this group is about 3.8 percent," he reports. "That's less than half the rate for the nation as a whole."
New grads: the "three-year scar"
New BS grads in the field face the toughest time finding a job. It gets easier for those with masters degrees or doctorates. The main problem, Harwell thinks, is the current surplus of techies who were laid off in the pharmaceutical and biotechnical industries in the past few years. These layoffs actually started before the current economic crisis, as a result of mergers and acquisitions among some very large companies. "A lot of the big chemical and pharmaceutical companies went through this," Harwell explains. The result is a phenomenon Harwell calls "the three-year scar."
"In the first year after a merger companies do an assessment to see where the redundancies are. They lay off those people in the second year, recalibrate in the third year, and it isn't until the fourth year that they start hiring again."
It takes planning
As a result, techies looking to join the ChE/EnvE field need to do some careful planning. "As a job seeker, you have to realize that the phenomena that are happening in our economy are also global," Harwell says. "That doesn't mean that you have to move but it does mean that if you are unwilling to move, you won't have access to as many opportunities. Every barrier you put up in terms of inflexibility, not being willing to adapt, is going to limit your chances."
But momentum may be building. "At ACS we are seeing more job listings coming in," Harwell notes. "We're starting with a trickle and it's building up momentum. Like the rest of the economy, it looks to be a slow but steady recovery."
Job seekers in this field will need patience. They can learn from the stories of seven techies who are doing very well in their chemical and/or environmental careers.
EnvE Julie Lincoln does remediation work with AECOM
"When I started my career I was told that environmental remediation was a mature industry because there were very few new sites that needed cleaning up," Julie Lincoln recalls. "But I've found that there are actually an incredible variety of sites requiring remediation. As my career progressed I've been involved in increasingly complex projects that I find very interesting. I've worked on soil and groundwater remediation at sites impacted by hydrocarbons, chlorinated solvents and metals."
Lincoln is an environmental engineer working in the Sacramento, CA office of AECOM (Los Angeles, CA), a global provider of professional, technical and management support services. She conducts environmental site assessments, remedial investigations, engineering evaluations, cost analyses and feasibility studies at mercury mining sites, radiologically contaminated Superfund sites, total petroleum, hydrocarbon and chlorinated-solvent contaminated installations, chemical and manufacturing plants, refineries, acid drainage mine sites and more.
One interesting project involved remediation of a manufactured gas plant (MGP) site in northern California. "Most of these sites are very old, from the late 1800s and early 1900s," she explains. "The sites range from forty acres to less than one acre in size. We typically use passive geophysical investigation tools like ground-penetrating radar or metal detectors to locate remnants of gas-holder foundations or other structures below the surface. Then we develop a plan to collect and analyze soil samples, groundwater samples and more. The data is used to complete a risk assessment. If necessary, we remediate the site.
"It is incredibly interesting work. As you understand the history of the site it tells you what kinds of processes occurred there and what kinds of chemicals you should be looking for.
"I'd say that a little under half of my time is spent in the field," Lincoln notes. "The rest is spent at my desk developing the planning documents that lay out how the investigation or remediation work will be implemented."
Lincoln grew up on a dairy farm in a small town in southern Michigan. She went to Kellogg Community College (Battle Creek, MI), earning an associate degree in 1995, and on to Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) to play basketball and earn a 1998 BS and 1999 MS in agricultural and biological engineering.
Then she joined Malcolm Pirnie, now the water division of engineering and design firm Arcadis (Highlands Ranch, CO). Three years later she moved to Tetra Tech (Pasadena, CA), working on historic gold mine sites in the Sierra Nevada and also at the Alameda Point Naval Air Station, an EPA Superfund site.
Lincoln has been at AECOM since 2004. Her clients include the U.S. Air Force, Army Corps of Engineers, Navy, Forest Service, several utilities and some private clients. She's been a member of the National Groundwater Association (www.ngwa.org, Westerville, OH), "a phenomenal resource for people in EnvE," she says.
There's plenty more work to do in her field as far as she can see. "New sites are still being discovered," she reports. "And as we move into the future people are finding that products they thought were safe turn out not to be."
Nevertheless, "I'm constantly trying to work myself out of a job by cleaning up the existing sites and moving on to the next ones," Lincoln concludes with a smile.
Dr Soumya Patnaik: growing at AFRL
The Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) is "a wonderful place to grow," says Soumya Patnaik, PhD. Dr Patnaik is modeling and simulation lead for the thermal management group in the energy/ power/thermal division of the propulsion directorate at AFRL (Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH). She's an expert in modeling and simulation of thermal properties of aerospace materials, with more than fifteen years doing research in areas of multiscale modeling, nanotechnology, biotechnology and polymer matrix composites.
"Multiscale modeling spans different duration and time scales," she says. "Many real problems involve multiple scales, and it's not always convenient to use just one type of modeling to address them."
Patnaik's group works on thermal management technology for airborne systems, particularly as they relate to combat conditions. "Engines are more powerful today, with greater capabilities," she explains. "Future aircraft systems will have significant increases in thermal load so we need technologies to manage the heat. Our mission is to see that the Air Force has the proper technologies for the future."
As technical lead Patnaik has a team of seven with backgrounds in ChE, ME and EE. She spends about half her time doing her own hands-on research.
She grew up in India, the daughter of academic parents. "I was always interested in science," she says: "Chemistry, biology and especially physics. I wanted to work in an area where you can do it all, and that's material science."
She has a BS in physics and an MS in material science from the Indian Institute of Technology (Kanpur, India), and a PhD in material science and engineering from the University of Virginia.
"A colleague of my advisor led me to a contractor job doing research at AFRL. It just seemed like a natural progression," she says. "There was a lot of flexibility in the kinds of research I could do and I could see a clear path forward."
She's been at AFRL for seventeen years, first in contract positions and then as a direct employee. She's worked on polymers, liquid crystals, composites and more.
Patnaik is a member of the American Physical Society (aps.org), the ACS, the Society for the Advancement of Materials & Process Engineering (sampe.org) and the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics (aiaa.org).
She hopes to stay at AFRL. "I like the technical challenges and the leadership role I have in shaping technology," she says. "Most of all, though, what motivates me is knowing that every single day, everything I do helps the warfighter."
Susan Jackson aces marketing communications at BASF
This March Susan Jackson was promoted to marketing communication manager at chemical company BASF (Florham Park, NJ), based in the Wyandotte, MI office. Jackson has a 1994 BSChE and a 2003 MBA from Louisiana State University (LSU).
She learned about BASF through career fairs at LSU and joined the company right out of college. "I was very interested in their professional development program; I appreciated the flexibility BASF had to offer," she says.
The professional development program gave Jackson three six-month assignments: as a production engineer in Freeport, TX; in corporate planning at BASF's New Jersey HQ and finally as a process engineer in Geismar, LA. "I loved all three of them and they gave me a real overview of the company," says Jackson. "BASF is a very large company and has gotten even larger since I came here."
When the rotation ended in 1996 she went into corporate ecology and safety in Southgate, MI. She helped develop corporate initiatives for waste disposal and provided expertise on solid-waste issues.
Two years later Jackson returned to Geismar, LA as BASF's environmental health and safety coordinator. She managed environmental, health, safety and process safety for plants making fuel additives, surfactants and other products, and sometimes worked with customers in those areas.
In 2001 Jackson was named senior operations engineer, which involved multiple roles in production planning, project management and product stewardship. "I really enjoyed the customer aspects of the business," she recalls.
She returned to LSU for her MBA and moved into jobs as product manager, accounts manager and business development manager, working with clients in a variety of industries, including pharmaceuticals and renewable fuels. And now she's in marketing communications.
"These roles let me use both my communication skills and my problem-solving abilities," says Jackson. "My technical background helps me understand what the plants can do and that helps me work with customers."
She's currently supporting performance polymers like engineering foam, plastics and specialty plastics. She also supports Styrolution, BASF's wholly owned subsidiary, working mainly with clients in the automotive and construction industries. She enjoys the marketing side of the business and hopes to stay with it.
Jackson is president of BASF's African American employee resource group. She also belongs to the National Black MBA Association and NSBE.
ChE Faye Gerard: critical work with BP America
"I've wanted to be an engineer since I was eight years old," says Faye Gerard of energy company BP America (Houston, TX). "No one could tell me 'no' or change my mind."
Today Gerard is a safety and operational risks functional planner for exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico. She's the primary health, safety, security and environmental (HSSE) and engineering interface with the company's finance and operations planning groups, working to develop integrated HSSE and engineering activity plans and budgets.
She works with a large and growing team of HSSE, engineering, regulatory, operations and finance people, and interfaces with the leadership team on risk-based plans and budgets for the organization.
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last April was a critical time for the company and for Gerard herself. She was the initial environmental unit leader for the spill during the first crucial weeks of response.
Gerard has been with BP for four years, following sixteen years with Marathon Oil. Her work there took her to a number of locations, and included process engineering, environmental engineering and HSSE supervision as well as diversity and community affairs. "Moving to a mega oil company like BP was a next logical step," she explains.
She grew up in Washington, DC, where her mother was a science teacher. "I found her chemistry books fascinating. I wanted to be a mad scientist, always asking for chemistry kits for birthdays and Christmas." She was encouraged by her father and an uncle who was an engineer with IBM.
She combined her last year in high school with her first year at the University of Maryland-College Park, and moved on to Tuskegee University (Tuskegee, AL) for her 1992 BSChE. Her 1998 MBA is from the University of Phoenix (New Orleans, LA).
Gerard belongs to many organizations and professional programs, including the Women's Energy Network (Houston, TX), NSBE, SWE, AIChE and the National Black MBA Association, where she's a competition coach in the group's Leaders of Tomorrow program. At BP she's the lead for recruiting and retention for the company's African American Network, and is on BP's recruiting team, looking for likely new engineers at Louisiana State University, Georgia Tech and several NSBE conferences. She's also a mentoring circles leader at BP.
Gerard had some challenges as a young African American woman engineer. "To start I was the only minority woman ChE at a male-dominated refinery, so I always had to work harder and be better. There were roadblocks and bumps along the way but it was a great learning experience!
"The sky's the limit at BP," Gerard says. "I aspire to be the best at anything I do and have always worked at deepening my technical capabilities to pave the way for future minority female engineers."
She speaks in schools about careers in ChE, "hoping that I can reach out to the next generation and let them know that if they'll put in the effort they, too, can be engineers!"
Sarah Rayford: operations supervisor at Chevron
"To me, a career is a partnership. It's a balance of how well I perform with what opportunities the company has out there," says Sarah Rayford, operations supervisor for Chevron's upstream production in Velma, OK. Chevron Corp (San Ramon, CA) has about 450 oil and gas wells in Oklahoma, and it's Rayford's job to make sure those wells produce efficiently. She's also responsible for safe operation of the facilities, including safety of the people in the field and protection of the environment.
The work, she explains, aims at giving the company maximum production while managing costs and supporting the teams that work on development of future assets. She leads a team of two dozen people, half of them reporting to her directly, with backgrounds in operations, down-hole and surface production.
Rayford's typical twelve-hour day begins at 6:30 am with a check of production from the previous day. By 7 am she's meeting with operations personnel. "We discuss safety issues, where construction crews are going to be that day and what our production priorities are."
Beyond that, "My day is almost unplannable," she says. "I generally have two or three meetings and when I'm not in meetings, there's construction work to be checked in the field and business issues to manage. I touch base with contractors, check on field priorities and ride along with field specialists to see what their concerns are."
The day ends at 6:30, looking through a pileup of e-mails and seeing what the calendar holds for tomorrow.
Rayford has been at Chevron for nine years but moved into her current job just this year. Before that she was a team leader of engineers who supported optimization and development of upstream projects in New Mexico and Colorado.
This is her seventh job at the company in nine years: unusual but very much in line with the company's employee development philosophy, she says. "My time at Chevron has been tremendously rewarding. I've learned a lot in each position and each one has built on the previous one, so I've always been able to bring something to the table but also grow in the new role. I've performed strongly in the positions I've had, and as new opportunities have come up, I've taken them."
One of her interesting jobs with Chevron was as a plant process engineer in a production facility in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan. "It was an incredibly rewarding experience to be a part of that culture and learn from them both from a technical and cultural perspective. It was one of the best experiences I've had," she says.
A native of Kansas, Rayford grew up in a family heavily populated with engineers. "I always got to see the fun side of science," she notes. She got her ChE from what is now the Missouri University of Science & Technology (Rolla, MO), and in school she interned with Burns & McDonnell (Kansas City, MO), an engineering and design firm, and with Dow Chemical (Midland, MI).
When she graduated in 2002 she considered these companies and others, "But I really wanted to work in an industry that provided a wealth of opportunities both in location and function, and I liked the oil and gas industry because it helps shape the economy and politics of the world. It's a global player."
Rayford also liked the friendliness and approachability of Chevron's recruiters, and her research indicated that Chevron is focused on new developments in energy, indicating a strong future. After interviewing with many oil companies she selected Chevron.
Looking ahead, Rayford hopes to earn an MBA and move up the leadership ladder. "I'm going to continue to perform and do well, and I'm sure that opportunities will open up. One of the really good things about Chevron is that performance is always looked at first," she says.
She belongs to the Society of Petroleum Engineers and the World Affairs Council. She's also part of Chevron's Women's Network.
Miguel Angel Gonzalez is on the FIRST team at Eli Lilly and Company
Born in Hormigueros, a small town in Puerto Rico, Miguel Angel Gonzalez realized in high school that engineering would be his future. Today he's an associate consultant engineer for a facilities-integrated resource and supply team (FIRST) at Eli Lilly and Company (Indianapolis, IN). He supports production of the active pharmaceutical ingredient of Humalog, a fast-acting insulin product manufactured by Lilly.
"Back in 1993, while I was still in high school, I was selected to do chemical research at the University of Puerto Rico on a project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense," Gonzalez says.
"The idea was to design an environmentally friendly way to retrieve heavy metals from already contaminated soil. The experience opened my eyes to the importance of chemistry and the appropriate management of materials to reduce their impact on the environment."
It also spurred his desire for a career in ChE. "I am the first engineer in my immediate family," he notes with pride.
Gonzalez got his BS in ChE from the Mayagüez campus of the University of Puerto Rico in 2000.
As an undergrad he interned with Merck, Sharp & Dohme Puerto Rico. "All my internships were related to environmental initiatives," he says. "My internship at Merck consisted of designing a thermal oxidizer to properly dispose of waste produced by a new manufacturing process."
He also interned with Lilly de Caribe, a Puerto Rico-based Lilly subsidiary, and was hired immediately on graduation. "I've been with Lilly since I finished school in 2000," he says. "Lilly has offered me development opportunities that helped maximize my abilities."
During his first years with the company Gonzalez was involved with environmental projects in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. "These projects helped me understand environmental regulations and waste management better and polished my engineering skills," Gonzalez says.
In 2007 he completed an MS in industrial technology from Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN). "Industrial technology is now called 'technology leadership and innovation,'" he notes. "It's a hybrid between an MBA and an advanced engineering degree. You take classes in business and project management, organization structure, leadership and general engineering."
In 2008 he moved into R&D; with Lilly. "I used more of my chemical background working with flow chemistry and continuous processing. I integrated my knowledge of environmental processes, which are continuous by nature, with flow chemistry."
Today Gonzalez is supporting Humalog, responsible for buffers preparation, purified water storage and distribution, raw chemicals, and clean- in-place systems used in the manufacturing process. Waste disposal is also part of his responsibilities, relating to his environmental experience. "I like the collaborative manufacturing environment," says Gonzalez. "I love to interact with people!"
The FIRST team he works with consists of both administrative and technical personnel. Gonzalez has no direct reports, but he notes that excellent people skills are still necessary. "I think serving others and empowering them is the way to get the best results," he says. "A team can do wonders if the leader is humble enough to learn from others. At the end the result is the composition of everybody's ideas; we reach the goal because of the group's richness in diversity."
Gonzalez is a member and former professional development chair of Lilly's Organization of Latinos. He is also a member of Lilly's minority engineering recruitment and retention team, and a member of Lilly-SHPE in Indianapolis, IN, where he works on recruiting and community outreach. He worked with SHPE-Indiana to build a scholarship fund, sponsored by Eli Lilly and Co, for high school and college students interested in engineering careers.
Dawn Coughlin manages environmental affairs at Hess Corp
"I was an outdoorsy kind of kid," says Dawn Coughlin, now senior manager of environmental affairs for Hess Corp (New York, NY), the global energy company. She helps with development and execution of environmental strategies that support sustainable business development, with a strong focus on water management initiatives.
In college Coughlin took an introductory course in geology and, "It just grabbed me," she says. "I thought it was the greatest thing!" She received her BA in geological sciences from Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ) in 1991, one of just two women in her graduating class to get that degree. "Others came and went but there were two left standing!" she recalls with a laugh.
It was a time when both state and federal government were stepping up environmental regulations, "So there seemed to be a call for people wanting to pursue environmental or remediation careers. I decided I'd help preserve the environment and make the planet a better place!"
Her first job was with a small company that did underground storage tank installation and removal. "I had the opportunity to be very hands-on, putting in groundwater wells, overseeing drillers, figuring out plans, taking samples, writing up reports and submitting them to the state," she says.
Supervising field crews made up mostly of mature men was challenging, but Coughlin persevered. "I have a tough shell and I'm strong-willed," she says. "I earned their respect and trust."
In 1993 Coughlin answered a Hess ad for a hydrogeologist. "They were looking for someone to act as a project manager for the marketing and refining remediation group of the environmental health and safety department," she recalls. Hess already had consultants in the field and Coughlin guided them within the regulatory framework of the time. "Some of my co-workers had engineering degrees while others had environmental science and geology degrees but we were all performing similar functions."
Three years later Coughlin moved up to senior hydrogeologist, handling more projects and with more consultants reporting to her. "It was very much a collaborative relationship," she says.
By 2001 she was manager of the Hess remediation group, overseeing the company's marketing and refining remediation program with four senior specialists and a staff assistant reporting to her.
"I try to give people opportunities to prove themselves by working independently," she explains. "They could come to me any time but I wasn't constantly looking over their shoulders."
In 2010 she became senior manager of environmental affairs, a new job at Hess. "Senior management went through an evaluation of what we had to do to be a stronger energy partner. One outcome was the need for stronger environmental policies and practices that will set us apart within the industry."
There's a strong push from all levels of government for industry to operate in an environmentally sound manner, Coughlin notes. "I monitor those developments from the federal level right down through public interest groups." It's part of her job to attend hearings and conferences, speak about what Hess is doing, and report back what she's learned.
Coughlin realizes with a sense of wonder that she's been with Hess for almost eighteen years now, in increasingly responsible assignments. She liked the technical work she used to do, but doesn't see herself returning to that side of the business.
"The group I'm in now lets me make a positive contribution to Hess at the same time I'm achieving my goal of doing something good for the environment," Coughlin concludes.
DIVERSITY-MINDED COMPANIES EMPLOYING
CHEMICAL & ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERS
Check website for current listings.
|Company and location
|AECOM (Los Angeles, CA)
|Professional, technical and management support services
|Air Force Research Laboratories
(Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH)
|Discovery, development and integration of
warfighting technologies for U.S. air, space and
|BASF (Florham Park, NJ)
|Chemicals, plastics, performance products and agricultural products
|Bechtel (San Francisco, CA)
|Global engineering, procurement, project management and construction
|BP America (Houston, TX)
|Oil and gas exploration, production and delivery
|Chevron Corporation (San Ramon, CA)
|Integrated energy products and services
|Eli Lilly and Company (Indianapolis, IN)
|Hess Corporation (New York, NY)
|Global integrated energy products and services
|Tetra Tech (Pasadena, CA)
|Consulting, engineering, program management, construction and technical services
|U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
|Licenses and regulates the nation's civilian use of byproduct, source, and special nuclear materials
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