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Oil Refinery Career Paths for Chemical Engineers

By Ralph Laurel

Sep 24, 2018

An outlay of potential career paths as an oil refiner.

Whether you work for a major oil company like ExxonMobil or an independent refiner such as HollyFrontier, refinery engineers have a variety of career paths to explore. 


Larger oil companies offer more diverse locations, faster career development, and a greater depth of exposure, but smaller companies also have their perks.  In this article I’ll share insights into the different avenues one can take when entering the glorious world of an oil refiner.


While every new grad often wonders where his career will take him 15 years down the line, there are hardly any careers in this world that offer the endless possibilities that one in the oil industry can present.  It doesn’t matter if you hold a degree in chemical engineering or one in electrical engineering, every door remains open to capable engineers.


The first thing to recognize is that a refinery career path is very multi-dimensional.  Most refinery engineers start their careers in a very technical role - from process engineering to design engineering.  However, as time progresses, many engineers find that their experiences diversify to include various management and technical roles throughout the entire organization. 


It’s best to view a refinery career path using the diagram below – think of it as 3 x 2 matrix where primary job tasks exist between Engineering, Commercial, and Operations.  Within each of the three primary categories, one can progress between Technical and Management assignments. 





Many people choose to remain within on field of specialty, while others move around and diversify overall experience.   The summary below details the different types of roles accompany each category.





Process Engineer

Most new hires with a Chemical Engineering degree start off as a Process Engineer.  Process engineers are responsible for providing technical guidance on operating units within a refinery.  They work with field operators, console operators, and unit managers to provide optimization and troubleshooting advice. 


Process engineers typically spend 2 – 5 years working on several refinery units before moving on.  Next assignments may include project engineering or refinery planning and optimization.



Project Engineer

Project engineers are responsible for designing and implementing capital improvements to refinery equipment.  This can range from upgrades to existing equipment capabilities, or installation of large projects.  The scope of coverage can also range from focus on one operating unit, or covering the entire refinery. 


Project engineers typically spend 2 – 5 years in role, and can rotate into process engineer or refinery planning and optimization as next assignments. 



Process Control Engineer:

Similar to Process Engineers, Control Engineer roles deal with unit optimization and troubleshooting.  The difference is that refinery Control Engineers focus all of their attention on software programs that help board operators run their units effectively. 


As there is typically only one board operator that often manages operations of multiple units, advanced control programs are used to put many critical control variables into an autopilot mode.  Control Engineers are the architects who design and maintain these “autopilot” programs. 


Traditionally, Control Engineers often remain in these roles throughout their careers.  However, these days Control Engineers have flexibility in some companies to advance their careers into different development roles.



Team Leads:

Within the first 5 – 10 years of working, most engineers do not have to decide between staying on a technical track or moving to a management one.  After showing capabilities as an individual contributor, many engineers are assigned a team lead position within the process engineering group or some other technical department, such as project engineering or the environmental group.


Team lead roles still require solid technical capabilities as one often has to provide direction on plant troubleshooting or optimization.  At the same time, engineers in this position start developing soft skills such as efficient communication and supervision.  If successful in these roles, employees can move onto the management track or into other groups to broaden skillsets.



SME Engineers:

Many people enjoy the thrill of unit troubleshooting, so they end up specializing as a senior process engineer or within one particular process technology, such as FCC or Coking.  Although these engineers may not climb the corporate ladder to achieve high salaries or fancy titles, SME Engineers are the glue that keep oil companies operating profitably and safely.


As refineries are complex and dangerous places to work, SME Engineers maintain the institutional knowledge that are often forgotten. 





Refinery Planning & Optimization:

One likely rotation after engineers complete assignments in process engineering is with the Planning & Optimization department.  While these roles are 100% office jobs, don’t think for a moment that engineering or people skills do not matter.


Refinery Planning & Optimization roles are often the toughest ones to take as you will have to understand and manage the entire refinery in these assignments.  Roles in this group require coordination of operations, engineering, commercial traders, and maintenance to keep a refinery running smoothly.   Assignments in this group also expose engineers to new tools such as Refinery Linear Program (LP) Models (such as PIMS) or scheduling applications (such as Orion).


Typical assignments here include:

  • Unit Optimization Planning Analyst
  • Refinery Short Range Planning
  • Product Blender
  • Product Scheduler
  • Refinery Business Planning
  • Refinery Strategic Planning
  • Operations Coordinator



Similar to other refinery groups, assignments within Planning & Optimization may last between 2- 5 years, depending on number of assignments taken within this group.



Supply Chain Optimization:

After working as a refinery planner, one has the opportunity to continue development within the commercial world.  To deepen interaction with commercial traders and global supply chain resources, one can move to corporate positions with supply chain optimization. 


Whether it’s with Feedstocks (i.e. crude oil) or Produts (i.e. gasoline), supply chain optimization focuses on maximizing the value of sourcing a commodity from the origin and delivery to its final destination.  This involves negotiation with commercial traders on pricing, to interfacing with logistics agencies, such as Shipping or Pipeline companies.  There are 3 main objectives of Supply Chain Optimization:


  1. Purchase material for the cheapest price
  2. Sell product for the highest price
  3. Pay the least to transport it from Point A to Point B 



Commercial Trader:

At one point in everyone’s career who spends time in the commercial world of an oil company, they ask themselves if it makes sense to become a trader.  The hours are easy, the stress level is low, and the bonuses are fantastic!  


A commodities trader at an oil company is no different than any other trader, but this is a small world where relationships matter.  It’s a guaranteed fact that one day your refinery will have an upset, and you will need to buy and sell product to cover the market.  From crude oil, to intermediate feedstocks, to finished products, commercial traders work to balance the lengths and shorts of a refining system. 


People who choose the path of a trader within an oil company often seek long term stability and less movement.  A typical trader tenure is 10+ years, and job options often only lead to one other path – the trading manager. 





Operations Management:

As an engineer, there is one typical path for those interested in operations – Operations Management.  There are different levels of experience one can obtain within this line of work, but it’s all different shades of the same color.


Operations is purely a management track, and it develops a person’s ability to manage a dynamic range of factors, including:


  • Personnel safety
  • Unit equipment reliability
  • Operating personnel
  • Unit process reliability
  • Unit environmental compliance
  • Operating expense
  • Energy efficiency
  • Unit profitability


People on this path typically spend 10 – 15 years within several engineering roles.  While commercial roles are advantageous to have, they’re often not common within operations management.  For those who have chosen the path of operations, they can find themselves in roles of increasing responsibility, including even the possibility of refinery manager. 




A typical refinery should also have a good balance of technical folks in these positions, as well as people who have worked their way up the ranks in operations. 



Safety, Health, and Environment

You may have noticed that so far I have not mentioned career progression in the Safety, Health, and Environmental department.  While every oil company stresses Safety, Health, and Environment above all other factors, the irony is that no company really has a good plan for developing SHE talent. 


Almost to the contrary, individuals find themselves placed in the SHE group often as a result of poor performance in other roles.  Makes you wonder about priorities, right?  Nonetheless, SHE groups still provide opportunities for engineers to learn about regulatory compliance, government policies, and managing people behaviors.

Refinery & Corporate Management


While I have not specifically covered the different types of management roles that one can assume through the refinery career ladder, just know that they are all available.  As refinery and supply chain organizations are complex, it is not uncommon for all management positions to be occupied by engineers. 


Most refinery management members do not have MBAs, and most have worked their way up the career ladder.  Many employees transition between the various fields of engineering, commercial, and operations, and often possess the ability to explore both technical and managerial opportunities.


It’s helpful to recognize that larger companies have higher management roles to expand into.  While independent refiners may have limited positions between Refinery GM and company CEO to fill, large corporations such as BP and Shell have dozens of position to transition into after Refinery GM. 

Beyond development within just one specific business unit, the benefit of working for an integrated oil company opens opportunities to different business units, such as Exploration & Production, Chemicals, Research & Development, and Midstream.  There are also parallel positions in different countries and continents, so the potential is effectively endless.


The simple truth is that there are insufficient qualified engineers in this industry today.  That shortage will take a very long time to balance, if ever.  While I’ve summarized a few typical career paths, the reality is that each individual has the flexibility to mold any path into their own.

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  • Azarbad :   Thank you.

    Sep 17, 2015

  • CMiller :   Thanks for the article Ralph. Would you be willing to write or share similar thoughts on how these career paths apply to Mechanical Engineers in the refinery? It seems as though ChemE's have a leg up in the industry and have more career growth opportunity. Any advice on how a ME can overcome that perceived obstacle? Thanks for your time.

    Oct 20, 2015

  • Ralph Laurel :   CMiller, as you know, the refining industry does tend for favor ChemE's. That being said, i have seen numerous companies place MechE's, or any talented engineer, onto a career path with enhanced growth opportunities. Operations Management, Process Engineering, and even Refinery Economics and Planning roles do not need to be reserved for Chemical Engineers solely. ChemE's possibly have a higher likelihood in excelling in those roles, but it's not uncommon to have other disciplines progress. My best advise is for other engineering disciplines to actively push to enter roles that are stepping stones for refinery career development.

    Oct 25, 2015

  • AJ Gonzales :   Thank you for this post. After reading your article, I now have a clear view of what I want after years of working in the industry. I have been working for 5 years now and still not sure of what path to take. Initially, i worked in refinery operations and then transferred to Automation/Process control. I still believe that those fields are related since Refinery operations control the plant via DCS and Control engineers need to have

    Nov 12, 2015

  • Ralph Laurel :   AJ, I am glad to hear that the article provided you with a little more clarity. I would suggest that even after 5 years, you still likely will change your career interests down the line. Just keep an open mind to development and learning new things about our dynamic industry.

    Nov 13, 2015

  • Paul :   Great Article Ralph, thanks for sharing your knowledge! I have some questions however..I am a field engineer who has worked in oil drilling within the oilfield services industry. Unfortunately I have lost my job due to the industry crisis. I am now exploring other possibilities and having heard that downstream oil is presumably doing pretty well as a result of low oil prices I though that would be a good place to start. I am curious about the work shifts in operations, is it like upstream oil where you work 28/28 rotas or the like. And is it as internationally mobile as working in drilling?? Thanks!

    Dec 26, 2015

  • Ralph Laurel :   Paul, I'm sorry to hear about the change in career resulting from the crude market crash. For refining operations roles, they are highly likely to be stationary, and your shift schedule will be very different than your 28/28 on/off upstream gig. Refinery operations typically work a cadence similar to: 2 days on day shift, 2 days off, 3 days on night shift, 2 days off, 2 days on day shift. It's called swing shifts as you are swinging from day shift to night shift on every other set. Since there are 7 days a week, that's how you get this 3-day shift (either on or off) every couple of sets. So to simply state, you will not enjoy refinery swing shifts if you are accustomed to 28/28s. However, the work is stable in downstream. I would not say that the refining business will necessarily do well with low oil prices. It is a cyclical business, and there are peaks and troughs of profitability. Good luck with your search.

    Dec 29, 2015

  • Sourav :   Very helpful article! Could you please tell me what knowledge or qualification a fresh chemial Eng. graduate should achieve to get a job in refinery as a process engineer?

    Apr 12, 2016

  • Ralph Laurel :   Sourav, undergraduate chemical engineers are a perfect fit for entry process engineers in a refinery. A solid understanding of mass balance, fluid dynamics, heat transfer, and distillation are the fundamentals for entry level process engineers. You likely will start on a unit such as Sulfur Recovery, Amine, Utilities, Crude distillation, or light hydrotreating. Brush up on your knowledge of general chemistry as this is applicable to many refinery process units as well. I wish you luck!

    Apr 12, 2016

  • Neil :   Very useful article. I'm from Scotland currently studying MSc Oil and Gas Engineering after completing my Honours degree in Petroleum and Gas Engineering. I was just wondering what career paths a petroleum/oil and gas graduate could pursue in the refining sector of the oil and gas industry? Most graduate jobs ask for chemical, mechanical or electrical, I've never seen anything which a petro eng grad could apply for although I'd like to go in to downstream instead of upstream. Also I'd like to complete my Masters project on a refining topic, do you have any advice for areas that could be covered that are currently under researched?

    Oct 01, 2016

  • Simon R :   Neil, all the petroleum engineers that i've met in my refinery days end up working similar jobs as the chemical engineers. As for a masters project, i think that every topic within refinery operations are more or less researched quite heavily. It is, after-all, a multi-billion dollar industry where slight improvements go a long way.

    Oct 02, 2016

  • Vincent Nonso :   Ralph Laurel, I really appreciate your article. I now understand deeply which path I can take as a chemical engineering graduate. Most times, I get so confused on which specialization or branch of engineering to focus on, since chemical engineering is a broad course. Now, I know better. Sir, I will need to constant guidance towards achieving a career path. Not only me, but most fresh engineers I know today are still in dilemma. Thank you

    Oct 23, 2016

  • Lyn :   Where is R&D?

    Apr 19, 2018

  • Duncan Lance :   Wow, I did not know that there were so many different career paths that were available for chemical engineers. It is especially surprising to see that some jobs like Refinery Planning made it onto here. After all, I would imagine that that takes several years worth of specialized training to get to. http://www.esitenn.com/engineering-procurement-construction/

    Jun 21, 2018

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