Features, So You Want My Job?

So You Want My Job? Chemical Engineer and Environmental Consultant

May 2, 2013

Our “So You Want To Be” series interviews men and women in engineering or jobs that require an engineering background to ask about their career, how they got into their line of work, and what their job entails.

Today’s interview is with Philip Black, a Chemical Engineer and Environmental Department Lead to the Oil, Gas, and Chemical Industry at Wood Group Mustang. At the moment he is heavily involved in projects related to greenhouse gases and climate change.

Tell Us a Little About Yourself

“I am originally from Kansas City and graduated from the University of Kansas in 2001 with a degree in Chemical Engineering.

Since there are lots of Chemical Engineering jobs in Houston – I came to Houston. If you are an engineer and aren’t sure what you want to do there’s probably something to do in Houston for you.

Related Post: 7 Reasons to Consider a Job in Houston, TX

I had done an internship/co-op working for Goodyear Tire Company in their engineering department. That is where I got my first taste of the environmental aspect of it [engineering]. But I moved to Houston after graduation and worked at a few companies that weren’t environmental engineering firms – I wrote engineering software for the Oil, Gas & Chemical Industry.

But around 2004 I moved to Wood Group Mustang and began working in their environmental department. I’ve been working there ever since doing a mix of software development and project management.”

How did you decide to become a Chemical Engineer?

“I came to study chemical engineering – one of the biggest mistakes people make is take a chemistry class and they think ‘I like chemistry. There are lots of jobs in chemical engineering. I should be a chemical engineer!’

But chemistry + engineering… is actually a lot different than just chemistry.

Among engineers there is a perceived hierarchy and chemical engineering is fairly well known for being one of the hardest.  That’s just an engineering pride type thing.

I did think about studying environmental engineering but I decided a lot of chemical engineers can make the switch to environmental… so I figured if I got a degree in Chemical Engineering… that’s actually more versatile. If you get an Environmental Engineering degree it’s a little more challenging to get into another engineering discipline – it’s a more specialized degree where Chemical is broader or more general.

That kind of leads into a side comment:

If I talk to students I tell them there’s a push towards really highly specialized degrees and that’s okay if you want it and know you want to do it… but I tell them it’s always best to go more general if they aren’t really sure about what they want to do after graduation.

You just have more flexibility if you get a degree in a field you can do if you want to [like Chemical Engineering] but aren’t limited by it.”

Can you describe your average day for us?

Wood Group Mustang Engineering Jobs

“My typical day…

Engineers LOVE Excel. Right?

There is a typical project engineer will spend a lot of the day in front of Excel trying to solve the problem and looking at the design requirements. Once you get out of school that’s what you can expect. That’s the typical introduction into engineering if you want to do hardcore engineering.

And, if you like that, you can keep getting deeper into details to become known in your field as a technical expert. That doesn’t matter if you’re working for an industry [oil company] or for an engineering specialty/consulting firm.

But as a project manager, your typical day isn’t as “typical.”

The management part I really like because I get a wide exposure to both the technical and business aspects of engineering projects. For example, I come in to work and do a status meeting, manage technical problems and work on any issues with the client. There may be two or three consulting companies working with the client, so I interact with them as well. We do a lot of interfacing with the groups, then talk with the clients about hitting milestones, asking ‘do you agree? Do you sign off?’ – things that get the projects done.

With the greenhouse gas work [consulting] we do – a lot of that, especially since those regulations are so new, involves going through the regulations and legislation itself and finding out the impact [on our clients]. Part of our value proposition to our clients is that they do not necessarily have to know or understand the environmental regulations yet.  It is our job to help them understand what’s coming down the pipeline with what a state or federal agency is proposing… and possibly even working with the industry trade associations to come up with a response to new proposals. Or responding to technical questions from the trade associations.

A few example questions might be:

‘Can we recover all the natural gas?’

‘What would be the impact if they required us to not do any flaring? Is that feasible? Give us some reasons why that’s feasible?’

We handle a lot of questions and if the issue is outside my expertise  – then I go to my project team and work with our technical experts who may have 20-30 years experience in natural gas. We get the answers from them.

One we have the answers from our technical experts it is my job to translate their very technical, very precise spectacular answer [from a technical point of view] to the non-engineers, the legislators.”

What projects are you currently working on?

“One of the big hot-button items in environmental engineering right now is the legislation around greenhouse gas. There are a lot of requirements around reporting.

With very broad questions like ‘How much greenhouse gas is being emitted from every manufacturing sector across the United States?’ Well, greenhouse gases are produced by everything from oil and gas to feedlots.

That’s been a huge part of our work over the last couple years – helping companies do this kind of reporting. The reporting is for the EPA, so that they can gather information and make regulatory decisions about the amount of greenhouse gas these types of companies can produce.

In addition, once we calculate how much gas is emitted from these sources, it’s our responsibility to help the EPA understand what technical challenges there are.

The EPA has a huge task – they have to come up with greenhouse gas reporting requirements for over 40 industrial sectors. Literally, it boils down to: ‘How much is being emitted from the whole country?’

And they are not technical experts in every one of these sectors. So it’s important to work with them to help them understand the technical side of our business and what our expertise is. We may work for companies that produce greenhouse gases but we all live here – we want to make sure the results are as accurate as possible.

Another project we work on; there is just a huge amount of environmental reporting and compliance for refining, production of oil and gas, and there are a lot more regulations put out on them every year. It’s a giant endeavor for a large facility like a refinery to comply with all the environmental regulations; it’s our job to make sure our clients are not violating any permits.

We provide both software and services to make sure they know they are within their limits and do not violate them.  We do a lot of work with existing refineries, chemical plants and brand new ones as well.

We work not just with the EPA but also with various regulatory agencies in other countries to help them comply with their regulations as well. Many other countries model their environmental regulations after the United States’, so understanding how the US does it gives us a very good point of leverage to market our selves throughout the world.

The US is a vanguard of environmental regulation.”

If a Chemical Engineering student wanted to become an Environmental Consultant, how should they prepare?

“Internships are extremely valuable, and not just from an industry exposure point of view. Technical experience is an advantage for you [as an applicant] because it’s that much less training that a company will have to do.

The job market is quite a bit better for Chemical Engineers than some other degrees… so the school come from is less important.

As for educational preparation, one of the things I would say is that a Master’s degree is not nearly as required in Chemical Engineering or Environmental Consulting as maybe in some other professions. I do think it’s a very good idea for engineers to go back to school and get an MBA [if you want to be a project manager especially] but I think personally you need to have some experience before you do that.”

Related Post: Getting an MBA as an Engineer: Worth It?

 What, in your opinion, sets one engineering job candidate apart from others?

“We are a smaller group within Wood  Group Mustang so we actually have a little more control over who we hire because we provide a more specialized type of service. Interviewing candidates is one of the parts of my job I really enjoy doing; getting to know someone, learning about their personality, how their experience fits in to the gaps we have, and whether they’re right for the position.

What sets one candidate apart from others – I’d say two things, principally:

  • From interviewing the candidate you can get a certain feel for their personality. Is this a person I would want to work with? Is this a person I can trust? Is this personality going to fit in with the rest of our team?
  • Their recommendations. If there is a person I respect and they give this candidate a good recommendation that helps my decision-making tremendously.
    • If you have experience: A good recommendation from people you’ve worked with [co-workers or your boss] at previous jobs.
    • For entry-level candidates: Experience with an internship and having a good recommendation from the employer you had your internship with will set you apart.

What helps in the interview itself –

I think from an engineering perspective – you must have the ability to solve problems. I’ll typically give the interviewee a problem… not even a technical problem, necessarily… just to find out how they solve the problems. It is important for all engineers to know how to solve problems, know what information to look for, and what kinds of questions to ask.

And if they don’t have a whole lot of professional experience yet, that answer will be a good indicator of how comfortable I am going to be with [the job candidate] going forward.

If I’m interviewing someone senior I’m looking for much more technical experience in addition to their problems solving ability.”

What is the best part of your job? The worst?

“The best part of the job is doing a lot of different kinds of projects. Learning about a lot of different industries… from refining, to natural gas production, chemicals and how chemicals are made… from a technical perspective that’s been a very, very interesting experience.

And from a people perspective I really love sharing and teaching, and as an engineer being known for technical experience is sharing with students. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to go back to Kansas and share my experiences with students.

I can do very technical presentations and papers but it’s not what I enjoy doing the most. One of the last things I did was talking about the importance of Environmental Education. We need to do a good job explaining the details and why it [environmental education] has to happen. I know the Oil and Gas Industry gets a big black eye from environmental NGOs- and there are problems. But a lot of people really care about not polluting. We have to live in the world, too. My goal is to get the industry more aware of going out and telling people this is what we do, here’s how we do it, and we care about the environment, too- it’s our mission.

People in the field doing the day-to-day job are committed to doing the very best they can and making sure things are done in the right way and not hurting the world.

For me one of the big things as far as career is helping companies focus on sustainability and corporate responsibility.

The corporate side is not just about profitability metrics – but company metric – how much good are doing in the world and how little of a footprint are we leaving?”

Any Advice You’d Like to Share with other Engineers?

“The main advice I would have is this: as an engineer focus as much on letting people know what you accomplish, not just what you do. It’s critical for your career and for you to understand that. And it’s absolutely critical for you to be able to communicate it. Engineers typically focus on what we do and tend to forget about what we accomplish.

You need to be able to say, ‘Here’s what I do and this is how I bring value to you and the organization.’

This is how you get promoted.”

Job Openings:

Education Required: Bachelor’s degree in chemical or environmental engineering.

Salary Range: (According to Payscale.com)

  • $54,572 – $105,954 for “Chemical Process Engineers,” with $75,613 being the mean.
  • $40,013 – $128,929 for “Consultant, Environmental Engineering,” with $61,721 being the mean.
  • $53,794 – $122,973 for “Senior Environmental Consultant,” with $83,095 being the mean.