When Miguel Hernandez immigrated to the United States, he spoke no English. He scrambled for temporary jobs as a day laborer, and even these were scarce.
Then the technical instructors at a community college changed his life.
“I have friends who are still doing the same odd jobs I did almost 30 years ago, so getting an education has been pretty powerful,” said Hernandez, a maintenance excellence specialist who helps Shell’s Deer Park refinery run more efficiently.
All of his instructors were experienced or retired industry professionals, recalled Hernandez, who trained as a pipefitter. “The only people who can teach the kind of technical skills we need in refineries are those who have actually worked in the field.”
That is why Shell is partnering with other public and private organizations to develop strong technical programs at community colleges. For the fifth year, Shell’s Workforce Development Initiative (WDI) team recently sponsored the National Association of Process Technology Alliance’s (NAPTA) conference on instructor skills in New Orleans, US.
Several Shell representatives attended the NAPTA conference to help develop strategies and share best practices for training the next generation of essential workers.
“At Shell, we couldn’t produce energy or oil and natural gas safely without a well-trained craft and technical workforce,” said David Esquibel, a member of Shell’s WDI team. “Yet, even when high school students are aware of these high-paying career opportunities, their options for good technical training are limited.”
Although options are increasing with the emergence of new programs, the need for high-quality technical instruction remains critical for our industry, Esquibel added. One reason is a shortage of qualified instructors and programs at community colleges.
Many retired and active Shell employees could help fill this need as part-time adjunct professors. These subject experts, who have field experience instead of a teaching degree, form the backbone of most technical training programs.
“Women would be especially valued as teachers on almost any campus,” said Krista Borstell, a craft recruiter for Shell’s operations who attended the NAPTA conference. “We really scramble to find enough qualified women for craft positions at our refineries and on our platforms. So, retired or active employees who can teach their skills would make great adjunct professors and role models for other women.”
Mark Demark took advantage of the opportunity for retirees. When Demark retired as general manager of a Shell catalyst plant in 1997, he spent idyllic days on the golf course. After returning to the workforce as a business consultant, he retired again. Still, he had more to give.
To help a friend, he stepped in as department chair of the fledgling process technology department at Alvin Community College near Houston. Although he ran the department, he also taught classes.
“Standing in front of a classroom as an educator was the furthest thing from my mind,” Demark said. “But I just fell in love with the job.”
It was supposed to be just a summer job. He stayed for 10 years.
Teaching gave Demark the chance to share his passion for operations. A process engineer, he spent most of his 31 years at Shell in management. “Most of the time, I was stuck in an office. But the times when I was out in the field were some of the best of my career,” he recalled.
The sound and feel of perfectly-tuned machinery; the subtle clues when something is wrong; the overarching responsibility for safety: these are things he can prepare students to understand.
Demark missed this sense of fulfillment when he retired from Alvin Community College. So, after a brief fourth career as a day trader, he returned to the classroom as a professor of process technology at Houston Community College.
Shell retirees and active employees are a good fit for technical training programs, Demark said. As adjunct professors, they can set their own schedules. For instance, they could just teach a Saturday class. The best way to get one of these jobs is to approach the school’s department chair, Demark explained. The job may not be advertised or available through the HR department; in fact, it may not even exist. But the need is so great that the department head might create a position for the right person.
“Technical education is a game changer for students,” Demark said. “Instructors have a powerful opportunity to make a difference.”
Miguel Hernandez agrees. “Going through college changed my life completely,” the former day laborer said. “Thanks to the instructors who taught my skills, I can work for a company like Shell and send my kids to better schools. That means a better future for my grandchildren. This can affect the next two or three generations.”
Hernandez believes so strongly in technical education that he teaches his own professional skills at Lee Community College in Baytown, where he is a part-time pipefitting instructor. He has also funded his own scholarship program there. Not only do his teaching activities look good on his resume, but they also help him build his professional network and keep his skills current. This increases his value to Shell.
But that is not why he teaches. He does it for the students. “As a former student myself, I know how much it means,” Hernandez said.