Partners Unite to Build Petroleum Processing Pilot Plant at Del Mar College

Michael Bratten
Innovation Showcase

An unprecedented public-private partnership is bringing a petroleum processing pilot plant to Del Mar College that will be used to train technicians for well paying careers in burgeoning industries. Essentially a working model of a distillation unit like those at the petrochemical plants and refineries that dot the landscape near the Port of Corpus Christi, the facility arrives during a perfect economic storm.

"There are multi-million dollar industrial expansions going on here and workers are retiring, so the increase in demand for a skilled workforce is exponential," said Lenora Keas, Del Mar Vice President of Workforce Development and Strategic Initiatives. "Thirty-eight billion dollars in direct foreign investment is coming into the region due to the low price of natural gas and the stability of the government. This is a boom."

On Oct. 20, 2014, all the major partners--education, industry and government--gathered at Del Mar's West Campus to give oversized, gold-painted wrenches a heave in the same direction, symbolically powering up the pilot plant.

"I wish this would ignite other areas in Texas," said state Rep. Todd Hunter, a guest speaker at the ceremony.

Hands-On Experience

When it's installed next spring on the West Campus, the pilot plant will distill glycol from water in the same way gasoline is distilled from crude oil at full-scale facilities. It will be operated by an array of electronic instrumentation indoors--process control systems--that connect to the business-end apparatus outside, including a 32-foot-tall distillation tower.

"With the pilot plant we can give students more hands-on experience versus theory in the classroom," said Denise Rector, Associate Professor of Process Technology at Del Mar. "They will have to climb and communicate with each other by radio, just like in the industry. It will be very lifelike."

Graduates will still have to go through normal hiring processes when they apply for jobs, but the pilot plant will help make them "road ready" for the workplace, Rector said.

Del Mar received a $1.3 million grant from the Corpus Christi Business and Job Development Corp. to build the pilot plant. Also known as the Type A Board, they help oversee economic development projects for the City of Corpus Christi with funding from a 1/8-cent sales tax.

"Because of the boom we're experiencing, giving kids coming out of school training opportunities that will help them get jobs and stay here in town is something we have to take advantage of," said homebuilder Bart Braselton, President of the Type A Board.

Seeking Support

Obtaining buy-in from the Type A Board may have been the easy part for Keas, the driving force behind the project. She also needed support from companies operating refineries and plants locally, such as Flint Hills Resources, CITGO, Valero, DuPont, and Occidental Petroleum Corp., who would be hiring Del Mar's graduates.

For a year, Keas played the role of pied piper, leading each industry partner to envision reduced costs for on-the-job training and high-quality applicants trained with state-of-the-art equipment.

"It was a hustle," she said with a smile. "We knocked on doors. We did presentations. The community needs it. Industry needs it. In the end, no one said 'No.'"

Houston-based Cheniere Energy was an early advocate for a training facility, Keas said. The company, currently planning to build a $12 billion liquefied natural gas plant on the north side of Corpus Christi Bay, chipped in $250,000 for the pilot plant, plus professional support.

"This project offers an opportunity for people to further their skill set in the booming energy industry at a time when the industry needs well-trained technicians and operators," said Pat Outtrim, Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs for Cheniere. "These are good jobs people can support families with."

When complete, Cheniere's plant will bring more than 200 permanent jobs to the area, Outtrim added.

Earning Power

It's not uncommon for a graduate with a two-year technical degree to earn $57,000 per year, Keas said, and a plant operator with technical experience can earn up to $80,000 or $90,000 per year.

To help students get an early start on these career paths, industry partners like Cheniere have helped develop curriculum for high school courses that count toward associate in applied science degrees at Del Mar. These dual credit courses, currently offered in two area school districts, align with industry needs and also meet Texas Education Agency standards.

For years, Del Mar has worked with industry representatives on an advisory committee to ensure the college's programs provide graduates the skills they need for employment. The pilot plant is a cherry on top of those efforts.

"We as a college could have developed programs for oil drilling jobs, but we chose to focus on long-term industries such as liquefied natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas," Keas said. "Production will ebb and flow, but the processing jobs don't go away."

Job Incubator

As the region transforms into a virtual job incubator, Del Mar is seeing an influx of students in its Process and Instrumentation Technology programs. More students enrolled this fall than in the past 20 years, said Hugh Tomlinson, Del Mar professor of Electronics and Communications Service at Del Mar, and he expects the number to continue rising.

The search is on for additional qualified instructors, Tomlinson added, but finding people from the industry who are willing to teach isn't easy.

"Every semester I graduate students with a two-year degree who end up making more money than I do with a master's," he said. "One guy who graduated in the spring with an associate's is making $135,000 a year at a local refinery. Some of these companies are paying above average because they want to attract quality employees who will stay with them."

Michael Bratten is a Communications Specialist at Del Mar College, Corpus Christi, Texas.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.