ChEs bring science, leadership and people skills to the workplace
Strong technical knowledge and skills are "the price of admission," but the ability to work with diverse colleagues and customers is key
Some employers offer a variety of roles over the course of a career
By Claire Swedberg
The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) reports that about 20 percent of chemical engineers work for the chemical industry, and another 20 percent are employed in fuels. Other positions include food and consumer products, biotechnology and design and construction. About 4 percent of chemical engineers go into environmental engineering.
The drive to increase diversity is underway among employers of ChEs, both to reflect the customers they serve and to foster innovation.
"We consider a diverse workforce to be essential to our success as well as an important social responsibility," says LeAnn Dickerson, VP of human resources at ATK Aerospace (Arlington, VA), a provider of solid rocket propulsion, aircraft structures and space systems and components. She believes that a diverse workforce fosters fresh and viable innovation.
Strong technical knowledge and skills, she says, are merely "the price of admission." ChEs need the ability to work with a diverse group of co-workers and customers, and appreciate the value and importance of safety, quality, schedule and cost.
"We utilize chemical engineering in a variety of functions at ATK, both in technical individual contributor roles and in leadership," says Dickerson. ChEs may be involved in a research project to scale up a new process; a project to effectively minimize and dispose of waste; or an assignment to identity ways to reuse or recycle byproducts and minimize handling risks. In addition, some ChEs are involved in "demilitarizing" existing and reclaimed products to extract useful compounds and reduce scrap.
In nearly every case, the chemical engineers featured here need both technical and managerial expertise for their roles. And the majority make it a point to attest to the importance of people skills and networking in their field.
Walter Tam uses engineering knowledge as his management foundation at ATK
Walter Tam, director of business development at ATK, wanted to be a chemical engineer as early as high school. He moved from Taiwan to the U.S. with his family at the age of fourteen, speaking no English. Today he manages a department and works closely with customers; always, he says, using his chemical engineering background to provide knowledge about the products his company makes.
He earned his BS in chemical engineering with a minor in plastics at University of Southern California-Los Angeles in 1984, and an MBA in 1986 from Pepperdine University (Malibu, CA).
After completing his bachelors degree, Tam took his first position as a process engineer at Hitco (Gardena, CA), a company that provides materials for aerostructures.
"At the time, I found that the engineering discipline itself was very narrowly focused," he says. He hoped to expand his horizons with an MBA.
With his MBA completed, Tam took a position at space company Rocketdyne (Canoga Park, CA) in 1987 as a finance analyst. "I was no longer doing engineering work at this point, although my technical degree helped me," he says. With his chemical engineering background, he points out, "I can go on the shop floor, look at a drawing and understand what I'm seeing."
He worked at Rocketdyne for two years before taking a job closer to home at space systems company Pressure Systems Inc (PSI) in 1989 as a proposal analyst.
After a detour for a few years to the Imagineering organization at Walt Disney World and EuroDisney, he received an offer to come back to PSI. He returned to work in program management, overseeing project proposals, pricing and contracts. PSI was acquired by ATK in 2004. He continues with his program management work as director of business development.
With each project, Tam works closely with the customer to ensure they get the product they want and that the engineering and building side of the project stays on task. He also manages overall financial trends, and supervises the pricing and contract departments.
"My engineering background really has helped, and I still apply my chemical engineering degree today. We're working with conversions, volume and pressure," he says, the same elements that make up the backbone of chemical engineering.
The science of people skills
Combining business and engineering has been challenging at times, and working with customers can be difficult, but not for Tam.
"It's easy for me to talk to customers," he says. This quality does not come naturally for many engineers, he acknowledges. "If you are an engineer who can also work well with customers," he says, then "you have a competitive skill. Engineers aren't trained to work with people. But you find that customers aren't scary if you give them a good product. You have to be honest, and give them the best feedback you can."
Tam says when he was first asked to head up business development, he worried that he wasn't a good fit for the position. At the time, he says, "I thought it was about drinking, socializing and playing golf with your customers," none of which were hobbies of his, he remembers with a smile. But he learned, "it's not like that. You offer a good product, and that's the best thing you can offer."
His own immigrant background, as well as the diversity of those around him, together make for a more dynamic work environment. "I think it works to our advantage. It helps us bring the best to our trade."
Tam is now pursuing a DBA in business through Walden Online University.
Bechtel's Heloisa Schmidt leads global teams
Heloisa Schmidt is environmental engineering chief at engineering company Bechtel (San Francisco, CA). She has worked in environmental engineering since she got her 1997 BS in the field at Northwestern University (Evanston, IL).
After graduation she took a position as a project engineer for Brownfield Restoration Group (Frederick, MD), providing permitting and environmental compliance support for clients.
In 2003 Schmidt became program manager for the Wildlife Habitat Council (Silver Spring, MD), where she managed two EPA grants to restore brownfield and superfund sites for reuse for other purposes such as public parks.
The next year she took a new position as an environmental engineer in Bechtel's environmental, safety, and health function in Frederick, MD. She provided environmental support to all the company's business units, but focused especially on mining and metals, helping with construction environment compliance and auditing existing environmental programs. "This was very different from my previous permitting positions," she says. "My previous jobs focused on permitting and compliance for operating facilities. At Bechtel, I was moving into compliance during construction." She traveled across the U.S., and to Oman, Canada and Sakhalin Island for a variety of projects.
Schmidt was also working on an MS in environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD), which she earned in 2006. With the MS, she took new positions as project environmental lead and then environmental safety and health (ES&H) manager, and oversaw projects in Louisiana and Angola. Later she provided ES&H management for a project in Papua, New Guinea, working out of Bechtel's Houston office, responsible for the development of all environmental, safety and health requirements for construction.
In 2009, she was promoted to environmental lead and permit coordinator for Australia's Wheatstone LNG project, and spent two years coordinating its environmental and permitting aspects. "Each project has its own challenges, and you face different regulations in each region of the world," says Schmidt.
In 2011 Schmidt took her current position as environmental engineering chief for the oil, gas and chemicals division. She oversees all environmental personnel in oil and gas, including chemical and environmental engineers and other technicians. She also ensures appropriate staffing of projects and oversees the design of water and wastewater construction, and leads about fifteen specialists.
"In my experience, Bechtel is a very diverse company to work for," she says. "Our staff has diverse backgrounds, and the company offers a wide variety of roles."
Andrea Thomas: growing at Eastman Chemical
Andrea Thomas has also found a variety of ways to use her chemical engineering background as department superintendent at Eastman Chemical Co (Kingsport, TN). She earned her BS in chemical engineering at the University of Kentucky-Lexington in 1991 and has been in the field, and at Eastman Chemical, ever since.
She started as a process engineer. Thomas took the position, she says, because "I liked the diversity at the company," and the chance to try a variety of projects appealed to her.
As a process engineer, her job was to improve processes and increase yield. From the beginning she worked on the production floor rather than behind a desk. "They really expected you to roll up your sleeves," she says; both to learn how operations work and to spend time onsite with the equipment operators. Her first big project, she says, was working on a distributed control system for production automation.
Later, she worked on new products, helping with research and development while still serving as process engineer. At that time the company was opening a new facility and so she worked on the plant's startup issues as well as operations and maintenance. When Thomas joined the project, the facility was only operating at about 25 percent of its stated capacity. "As process engineer my challenge was to get it closer to one hundred percent," she says. By the time she left the project, the plant was running at about 70 percent of capacity.
Becoming a leader
In 2001 Thomas took her first management job as technical staff head doing second line supervision in Eastman's cellulose esters division. She worked in the manufacturing area overseeing process engineers as well as safety and quality personnel. It was a challenge, she says. "I had people working for me who were older and had more experience." The new position helped her shape her managerial style, which includes being open to people's ideas. "Get them involved in the decision making," she advises.
"When you're managing, you're there to learn the issues people are having and try to get those issues out of their way," she says. "You're not there to tell them what to do, but to try to help them get their jobs done."
In 2007 Thomas became operations manager and oversaw four team managers as well as maintenance coordinators with a total of fifty-four employees. In early 2012 she was promoted to department superintendent. The supervisors who report to Thomas are responsible for quality, safety, environmental compliance, manufacturing support and distributive control systems.
"Eastman has put me in positions where I could grow," she says. And the work has been broader than she anticipated, which pleases her. "Some of my knowledge and strength still come from my early years as a process engineer when I was able to watch the work being done and build an understanding of the company operations."
Water expert Ashley Wolff: co-op to careers at Duke Energy
ChE Ashley Wolff is Duke Energy Generation Maintenance Services' water chemistry subject matter expert in Cincinnati, OH. She earned her BS in chemical engineering at the University of Cincinnati in 2007 and an MBA at Thomas More College (Crestview Hills, KY) in 2011.
Wolff's career began before she finished her degree. In January 2004 she did a co-op at Cinergy (Cincinnati, OH), now part of Duke Energy (Charlotte, NC). "I thought it was a good opportunity, but I didn't know if it was something I wanted to do after graduation," she says. However, she found the company not only had helpful and supportive senior engineers, it provided an environment "where I could learn and grow." She spent a total of six co-op quarters at the company.
The company made her a job offer in October of her senior year, and she accepted. Wolff was hired in 2007 as station laboratory supervisor at the East Bend generating station in Rabbit Hash, KY. She was put in charge of four laboratory technicians analyzing water samples for a variety of operations.
In January 2010 Wolff began working on her MS, taking advantage of Duke's education reimbursement program. She was looking for a challenge, so she chose an MBA to learn the business aspect of the company's operations.
That year she was also promoted to water chemistry subject matter expert, her current position. Instead of overseeing just one station, she supports all of them, representing nineteen Midwest facilities. She travels often. "I'm focused on production efficiency, protecting equipment and staff safety," she says. Wolff is also responsible for developing and administering enterprise cycle chemistry and water treatment programs.
Her job requires that Wolff stay up to date on industry best practices by participating in organizations like the Electric Power Research Institute and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Power Plant and Environmental Chemistry interest group. She also serves as a mentor for the company's chemical engineering co-op students, providing guidance for their technical, professional and leadership development.
"My current position offers growth opportunities in two areas," she says. "I work in the corporate environment in downtown Cincinnati, but also get out to the generating facilities where I can see and work with the operations in action."
Mentors, influences and networks
Wolff also hires co-ops and oversees their development. She never forgets, she says, the senior engineers who helped her early in her career by providing strong mentorship. The best job candidates who come to her, she says, are those who are "willing to get dirty and apply themselves."
Wolff says that during her early years at the company, she had few female role models in leadership. But that's changed. "I really enjoy interacting with and getting advice from women leaders," she says, but "I don't hesitate to find male mentors; they also can definitely help your growth professionally."
Wolff has been active in regional and national organizations working to increase the pool of promotable women: the Cincinnati Area Women's Network and the Midwest Energy Association's Energetic Women. She's been selected to represent Duke Energy in an early-launch leadership development program for emerging, high-potential, professional women selected by their organizations' senior management teams.
NRL's Carolyn Kaplan: research and management
Carolyn Kaplan earned her BS in 1980 and an MS in 1985, both from the University of Maryland-College Park. In 1987 she completed her PhD in chemical engineering, also at the University of Maryland.
Immediately after earning her BS, Kaplan worked for an energy and environmental consulting firm in northern Virginia that used federal grants to pursue alternative energy options and reduction of environmental pollutants. As a chemical engineer she contributed to the study of shale oil as an energy resource.
In 1981, Kaplan went to work at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL, Washington, DC). During her first thirteen years, she served as a chemical engineer in the chemistry division of the Navy Technology Center for Safety and Survivability, where she did basic and applied research in fuel chemistry, combustion and fire safety. "At first, I did experimental work in characterizing the chemical and physical properties of soot from flames," she says. "Later on, I started doing computational work to simulate and study the physics and chemistry of fires."
Kaplan recalls that her supervisor was very supportive of the younger engineers. He nominated her for an NRL fellowship, the Edison Memorial Graduate Training Fellowship, to obtain a graduate degree. She started her masters program in 1983, working at NRL for twenty-four hours a week, and attending classes for the other sixteen. She earned her MS and PhD in chemical engineering through the program, both while working at the lab.
In 1994, Kaplan transferred to the laboratories for computational physics and fluid dynamics at NRL, as a research chemical engineer. She was responsible for developing and maintaining compressible reactive-flow fluid dynamics simulation tools, using a parallel processing method for scientific computing.
In 2011 Kaplan was promoted to head of the laboratory for propulsion, energetic and dynamic systems. She supervises a group of five engineers and scientists who do research in fluid dynamics for the Navy and the Department of Defense. "Although I'm a supervisor, I still spend much of my time doing research," she says.
"When working in a research career, people tend to develop specific areas of expertise. Sometimes there are better funding opportunities in other areas, so it is best if people are sufficiently flexible to be able to move into new areas of research as needed," she notes.
"In my thirty-plus years in the workforce, I have never experienced any kind of discrimination for being a female in a male-dominated area," Kaplan says. "Throughout grad school and at work, all my supervisors and colleagues have been supportive and respectful."
AECOM's Shelley Howard focuses on global efforts and networking
In her career at technical and management support services company AECOM (Los Angeles, CA), Shelley Howard has traveled the world. She earned her BSChE from the University of Southern California (USC, Los Angeles) in 2004, then completed a masters in civil engineering, also at USC, in 2007.
Howard took a job at environmental company ENSR, which is now part of AECOM, as an engineer, and worked in Southeast Asia on environmental remediation projects. In 2008 she transferred to Australia, where the environmental industry was expanding. She returned to the U.S. this year.
Howard is continuing her commitment to a project she began in Australia at a large commercial dry-cleaning facility with contaminated soil. Over the past decade, the contamination has leaked into four adjacent properties.
"Along the way there have been quite a few challenges, both expected and unexpected," Howard says of her travels and experiences. "In this job there is a considerable amount of client management, management of other business owners, and community interaction. At first I didn't realize the importance of good people skills."
Dealing with people effectively
"While I understood and expected the technical side of my work, the very human and personal side was a bit of a surprise. Many people think engineers just sit at their computers all day and do calculations," she says, "But that's a very big misperception."
The skill that's proven most useful to Howard, she says, was a determination to never take "no" for an answer. When she first applied, for example, she was told she was too young to get an international transfer. "Had I listened to that, I'd never have gone to Asia or Australia."
Networking skills are important, and if she could do it all over again, Howard says, she would have developed them earlier. Networking may be intimidating, but "if you're at a conference or a big meeting, you must be able to go up to someone you don't know and introduce yourself in a confident manner."
Howard found that if she could be even 5 percent better at communicating than the next engineer, it gave her a considerable edge. "So I forced myself to do that."
Self-promotion is another area engineers may not be comfortable with, she says, but she also points out that no one can advocate or publicize your good work better than you can. "Make sure you promote yourself appropriately and professionally. Self-publicizing is very important."
DIVERSITY-MINDED COMPANIES HIRING ChES AND ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERS
Check website for current listings.
|Company and location
|AECOM (Los Angeles, CA)
|Technical and management support services
|American Water (Voorhees, NJ)
|Water and wastewater services
|ATK (Arlington, VA)
|Solid rocket propulsion, aircraft structures and space systems and components
|BAE Systems, Inc (Arlington, VA)
|Global defense, aerospace and security
|Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp
|Technology for defense and civilian government agencies, and commercial customers
|Bechtel (San Francisco, CA)
|Engineering, procurement, construction and
project management, and development services worldwide
|ConocoPhillips (Houston, TX)
|Energy production and delivery; oil refining
|DRS Technologies (Parsippany, NJ)
|Defense technology solutions and services
|Duke Energy (Charlotte, NC)
|Gas and electric services
|Eastman Chemical Company (Kingsport, TN)
|Chemicals, fibers and plastics
|GlaxoSmithKline (Research Triangle Park, NC)
|Pharmaceutical and healthcare products
|Naval Research Laboratory
(NRL, Washington, DC)
|Corporate research for U.S. Navy and Marine Corps
|Phillips 66 (Houston, TX)
|Gas and oil refining
|Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America (Erlanger, KY) www.toyota.com
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