Working with local college fuels opportunities for employment

    Audra Smith did not like playing with dolls when she was a little girl. She refused to wear a dress – preferring instead to build cities for her action figures, play with chemistry sets and explore telescopes. The 39-year-old Houston native looks back on her childhood with a laugh, remembering her parent’s frustration.

    “I wanted to build my own toys, not play with the store-bought ones,” Smith said.

    Smith worked as an operator intern at Chevron Phillips Chemical’s Cedar Bayou facility in Baytown, Texas, as she prepared to graduate from Lee College in May 2017, with a two-year process technology degree. As an intern, Smith spent two days a week, 12 hours a day learning about polyethylene manufacturing and working with an experienced mentor.

    When Chevron Phillips Chemical first decided to pilot a workforce development scholarship and mentoring program at Cedar Bayou, the U.S. Gulf Coast (USGC) Petrochemicals Project had just been announced. The 2012 news was mixed with excitement and challenges as the Cedar Bayou plant – like most industry in the Gulf Coast region – faced a workforce shortage.

    “Many companies announced expansion projects at the same time,” said Roy Watson, workforce development and training manager at Chevron Phillips Chemical. “It soon became apparent there would be a shortage of qualified workers for these projects, especially with the large number of seasoned employees looking at retirement.”

    Starting with a $70,000 endowment to Lee College and a willingness to pair every scholarship winner with an experienced company employee, the mentoring program was born. Since that time, the Cedar Bayou facility has awarded 91 scholarships to local students studying process technology, instrumentation technology or electrical technology.

    The scholarship pays for half of the student’s tuition and the entire cost of books. But the most unique aspect, and the only one of its kind at Lee College, is that every scholarship winner is paired with a mentor.

    “The mentoring program has been one of the biggest assets to our scholarship program,” said Kerri Hurlbut, Lee College Foundation assistant and mentor program coordinator. “All of the students want the Chevron Phillips Chemical scholarship because of the mentor program. I believe it has made the difference for many people.”

    Smith applied for the Chevron Phillips Chemical scholarship in her second year as a process technology student.

    “My professor told me it would take hard work to get into the company, because many students want to be there but only a few make it,” Smith said. “I told him there are two people in the process technology program – those who want to be operators and those who will do anything to be operators – and I am the latter,” Smith said.

    Smith was awarded the scholarship and paired with Joel Miller, an operator for seven years and a longtime mentor currently working on the USGC Petrochemicals Project. Smith spoke to Miller at least once a week, sometimes sending questions to him about her homework or simply to check in.

    As part of her mentoring experience, Smith was invited to visit Miller at work, where she was given a plant tour and met other operators on the project. Walking through the plant marked the first time Smith had seen life-size process units up close, giving her an edge over classmates working on simulators at school.

    “Being a mentor has been enlightening for me,” Miller said. “I assist with the growth of process technology students and watch them prosper to fully qualified operators. It’s very rewarding. I truly believe the mentor program has great rewards for local students and the mentors, too.”

    As Smith neared graduation, Miller arranged a mock interview with one of the project’s hiring managers so she could practice her interviewing skills. He also advocated for her when she interviewed for the internship position.

    “My mentor not only gave me tips and advice, he put me in places where I could meet people and get real access to the profession,” Smith said. “The more I interacted with my mentor and his coworkers the more I realized I wanted to be a part of what is going on at Chevron Phillips Chemical.”

    Upon her graduation from Lee College, Smith was offered a full-time position working at the Cedar Bayou facility.

    “I feel so grateful and appreciative to be here now,” she said. "Sometimes I can't believe I'm really here."

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