Processing Magazine

The global nature of the process industries illustrated

November 1, 2013

Climbing into the “town car” parked curbside at Chicago’s Midway airport, it was clear the ride home would be a shared one.  The already ensconced backseat occupant soon said he was an engineer, a forensic engineer. This editor, settled and seat-belted, explained who he was.

Then the conversation, hesitant at first, touched on the high incidence of accidents in the chemical industry; the unique characteristics of the global oil & gas industry; the depletion of the Colorado River; process complexity and the evolution of operator interfaces; the use of brass for fittings in commercial and residential plumbing; needed advances in materials science and the impact of the U.S. federal government shutdown on EPA officials working within industry.

Given the Friday late-rush-hour traffic, the ride of about 50 minutes went quickly.  And the forensic engineer had the good fortune of being dropped off first. But no sooner had he stepped out onto his driveway and the car door closed then the driver, a gentleman from India, turned to the back seat while placing the car in gear and said, “I worked in the petrochemical industry for more than 30 years, living in Bahrain, Singapore and Hong Kong with some of the largest oil & gas companies in the world.”

His parents, the driver explained, had moved to the United States many years ago, while he had not. Instead he and his wife traveled the world. But now they had two grown sons and a daughter. One son was a mechanical engineer, one was an electrical engineer and the daughter, just graduated, was an industrial engineer. They had wanted to come to the United States and because of his parents they all were able to do so. The driver’s industry certifications weren’t valid here in the U.S., he said, but, of course, he kept working. “In the U.S. it doesn’t matter as much what kind of work you do, as long as you work.”

Already one son, now a U.S. citizen, was employed by a major U.S. oil corporation and working in South East Asia.   

The forensic engineer, a young man, had said he enjoyed his work. It’s what this editor likes most about engineers. It was remarkable from the first moment he ever stepped into an engineering department more than thirty years ago: “These people enjoy what they’re doing.” Then there was the opportunity to learn about mechanical and electrical drawings, bills of material, ladder-logic diagrams, what they did on the shop floor and all the different nomenclatures.

 The driver was pleased overall with where he had come out and it was easy to be happy for him. But, unfortunately, his story also reinforces the notion that the United States remains much more interested in “importing” its engineers than it is in “growing” them. And too, given the boom and bust nature of the oil and gas industry, here in the U.S. you find petroleum engineers doing many other things besides oil and gas and universities struggling to maintain programs in petroleum engineering.