College poised to meet demands of growing industry

BAYTOWN, April 2, 2013 - It’s Tuesday morning and Lee College’s instrumentation lab is filled to capacity with students troubleshooting process control systems in a controlled, state-of-the-art environment. As the day progresses, students will pile in to adjacent labs to learn more about remote plant operations, while others will spend the evening replicating real-life scenarios on the college’s pilot plant and micro-plants.

It’s just another day at a local institution poised to meet the needs of a robust Gulf Coast petrochemical industry.

“Lee College is known for having the best petrochemical instructional and training programs in the nation,” said Technical Studies Division Chair Jim Richardson. “We partner with ExxonMobil, Bayer, Chevron Phillips, SNC-Lavalin, DuPont, Air Products and many others. Their input and financial support have been critical. Our students train on equipment actually being used inside these plants, learning processes and systems that make them eligible to step into a job and be productive from the first day.”

Good news for an industry whose growth shows no signs of slowing down.

In 2011, Chevron Phillips Chemical announced the U.S. Gulf Coast Petrochemical Project, which includes construction of a world-scale ethane cracker at the company’s Cedar Bayou facility in Baytown. In March 2013, ExxonMobil announced a multi-billion-dollar expansion of its Baytown complex. Coupled with projects at other facilities, this growth is projected to bring as many as 22,000 construction workers to the area over the next 10 years, and add more than 1,000 permanent, full-time employees.

The impacts of these projections can be seen across campus technical and vocational facilities, Richardson said. Enrollment in the construction and maintenance trades within the college’s petrochemical programs is rapidly increasing. More than 900 students were enrolled in Technical Math, Electrical Technology and Instrumentation Technology in the spring semester alone. Programs including Computer Aided Drafting and Design, Process Technology, Instrumentation and Welding remain among the top ten programs by graduates each year, helping the college earn its rank as fifth in the nation for degrees awarded in science and technology.

“We are attracting more and more students,” Richardson added. “They’re coming here because they know our reputation. Our students are highly recruited for both internships and permanent positions. These aren’t your typical entry-level positions. We regularly see students graduate in their early 20s and earn $50,000-$60,000 starting salaries, with good benefits, and the word is getting out.”

The “word is out” among industry as well. According to Richardson, local facilities are also taking advantage of college programs and services.

“We are currently working with DuPont to offer employees training in both instrumentation and electrical technology,” he said. “This is something we’ve done almost every year. Training is offered five days a week for six consecutive weeks on campus.”

Employees from Flex Steel are also participating in mechanical and electrical training courses every Friday through Dec. 2013, and the college is gearing up to provide ExxonMobil employees with PLC training, he added. “We have also been approached by companies including Chevron-Phillips, Shell, and Enterprise Products, and we are regularly assisting area plants assess the quality of their technicians and identify additional training opportunities.”

Incumbent employees benefit from career advancement opportunities that come with additional certification and training, he continued, which, in turn, opens doors to employment for recent graduates.

Although the demand has created challenges — labs are filled to capacity “eight hours a day and four hours a night” — Richardson said the college remains committed to meeting the need.

“The petrochemical industry fuels our local community,” Richardson said. “It creates stable, high-skill, high-demand, and high-paying jobs that deserve to be filled by local residents.

“We want to make sure that our community members are equipped to fill these positions so they can build a solid career and a good life. We are a community college,” he continued, “and that’s who we serve.”

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