By Stephany Romanow
Following college graduation, many promising new engineers join the ranks of hydrocarbon processing industry (HPI) facilities to continue the operation and support of present day complexes around the world. These new hires will attend job orientation programs that differ widely due to the size, primary business and cultures of the company.
Differences. As it was when we, todays more experienced engineers, first joined the ranks of professional engineers, the new hires still lack experience about the HPI and real world. These knowledge gaps must be closed; various means can be used to bridge the gaps such as structured training curriculums, job rotations, and, most important, mentoring programs.
Lost knowledge. The HPI is facing dire times as many of the trained/experienced engineers from the late 1960s and 1970s are seriously planning their exit from full-time work to their well-deserved retirement. Management did not see or failed to plan for this massive exit of well-experienced group of profession. Layoffs from the 1980s and 1990s did major damage. Young graduates avoided the oil and gas and downstream businesses due to highly volatile employment trends. Bright undergraduates found a growing attraction to the information technology (IT) sector.
Lost opportunities. The yo-yo staffing and resizing trends of the 80s and 90 squandered valuable time to train the technical replacements now needed. Just like any professional sports team, new recruits are invited to join the team while management focuses on the best recruits to foster and to train for the next generation of players. Sadly, this next-generation of HPI trainees did not take form due to downsizing, rightsizing or poor advancement options within the industry.
What now? For the next decade, companies will be actively looking for methods to capture the knowledge from their most senior engineers and professionals and preserve it for the next group. As the new-millennium generation joins the energy industry workforce, mentoring gains even higher priority among the staffers, who are looking for the exit doors.
This group of young engineers is very different. New-millennium babies have had access to computers during all of their education. They are online, 24/7. This group reaches for online search browsers to begin their introductory review of information for any project. They have smart phones that have more processing capability than the main frames that many of us used to control process plants back in the 1970s.
As with any problem, there are always different approaches to arrive at the solution; some are more direct than others. Determining the optimum methods to achieve the best solution does involve applying experience to weed-out the lesser options. Such experiences were handed over to us by the senior engineers who came for the baby-boomer generation. Before the crunch/recession times, process and project engineering groups had several experience engineers on staff to start the knowledge transfer to new and lesser experienced engineers. Central engineering, likewise, provided the extra experience-based knowledge to complete training to site engineers.
However, right-sizing efforts trimmed away these engineering positions at the plant and corporate levels. The downsized experienced engineers were lost to other industries or retired, thus taking their expertise with them. The HPI is concerned on how to preserve its knowledge based before it retires completely from the workforce over the next 10 to 15 years.
Engineering experience is only valuable before it becomes obsolete. It is the responsibility of the senior staffers to start the transfer of knowledge with the next generation of engineers. When looking for answers on tough technical questions, veteran engineers grab their text books, handbook CDs and conference papers to start our background search. We may do a Google search to direct us to a company or website that we may have forgotten. Better yet, we may call a colleague within or outside of the company to share notes. Since many senior engineers began their careers before the Internet revolution, we were trained to seek multiple resources.
The HPI is a people business! Everyone has valuable experiences to share with other interested members. Mentoring new hires is most important in relaying valuable information in a useable and retainable form to the new hires.
Not everything begins and ends with an online search. It truly astonishes our younger engineers that we actually did our jobs without laptops, process simulators, Internet, smart phones and Twitter. We had slide rules, an on-site library (and possibly a full-time librarian) and, most important, senior engineers to help get us on the right path and to provide guidance.
The experienced engineers of the HPI have seen a tsunami of technology sweep over and shift how we conduct our jobs and operate and design HPI facilities. We are now more connected than in previous decades.
These are all great accomplishments. However, information gain through the process still needs to be passed in a format that is usable to the next generation of HPI professionals.
Two-way process. In the mentoring process, we, older engineers, can learn from the younger engineers as well. The conversation must start now. To our senior readers, pick a new hire within your department and begin the one-on-one conversation and share your experiences about the industry sector with your new kid on the block. Face-to-face discussions can lead to more fruitful interactions that would have never started from impersonal e-mail correspondence. Better yet, start a group/department mentoring program in your company. Mustang Engineerings young guns program strives to have senior engineers share their professional experiences with new hires. There are other quality engineer training and development programs in place in the HPI. For many senior engineers, it took 30 years to gain the knowledge that is applied on a daily basis.
To our seasoned readers, we were young and less experienced once. Time and technology has changed how we conduct business and, more important, how we communicate and learn. Experience has evolved in preventing mistakes in operations and design of HPI facilities as well as finding new opportunities to improve.
Lets hope that we will still be around to see how our training improved the development of our new kids as they train their replacements.
Gobel, W., The ups and downs of mentoring, Hydrocarbon Processing, March 2012, p. 90.