Who is Running Your Plant at 3 AM?

Article by John Bresland and Ian Travers

A look at how process technicians around the world are trained

IN an oil refinery or a chemical plant there are several layers of management and operational personnel. At the top is the refinery manager or chemical plant manager. Typically, their staff includes managers overseeing operations, maintenance, human resources, finance, technical issues and health, safety and environmental programmes.

This article discusses the staffing in a typical operations department, led by a manager overseeing production engineers and shift supervisors. The shift supervisors oversee the process technicians – for the sake of clarity we will use this term to mean operating technicians, operators, console technicians etc. The process technicians and shift supervisors run the facility 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. While the management and salaried staff work five days a week from 8 am to 5 pm (and usually much longer) the process technicians are there at 3 am every day, determined to run the facility as safety and efficiently as possible.

Who are these people to whom this large responsibility is delegated around the clock? How are they hired? What is their skill level? How are they trained? There are two aspects to consider, one is the recruitment process, and the second is the inductions and training they receive after being hired.

This article will address the skills level and training aspects. The training a process technician should receive after being hired typically takes place in several steps:

  • initial inductions, learning about the company, the process, safety and environmental programmes, protective gear;
  • assignment to be trained in a section of an operating unit, usually as an outside process technician, probably for as long as a year;
  • assignment to a different section of an operating unit, again for as long as a year;
  • permanent assignment to a section of an operating unit;
  • assigned or (in a unionised facility), bid into control-room console technician position; and
  • moved into a management position as a shift supervisor.

But a more challenging question is “what should the education and qualifications be for a person being hired as a process technician in a chemical plant or an oil refinery?”

There are several ways to be recruited as a process technician:

  • being hired in with no process technology experience and then being trained on the job;
  • having several years’ experience with another company or facility as a process technician before moving to a new company; or
  • having little or no process or industry experience but having graduated from a two-year process technology (PTEC) programme at an accredited college or university.

We have studied the competence training process in several countries and discuss this here.

United Kingdom

UK health and safety legislation is goal setting and not prescriptive. The legal requirements set the outcome to be achieved and not the process or method to be adopted to realise that outcome.

In broad terms for chemical facilities within in the UK there is a requirement under Seveso III (Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations, 2015)1 to take all measures necessary to prevent a major accident and to mitigate the consequences should one occur. An important “necessary measure” is to have sufficient competent persons on site at all times to manage risks, control the processes and deal with abnormal conditions and to give effect to the emergency arrangements.

For upper-tier COMAH sites, within the safety report, the company needs to provide a description of the approach to the arrangements for selecting and recruiting competent personnel, identifying and meeting their training needs, monitoring their performance and allocating roles and responsibilities as appropriate.

For all facilities the arrangements for selection, training and deployment of resources will be closely examined during routine regulatory inspections. The safety report should also explain how senior management provides sufficient human resources to maintain adequate staffing levels for the full range of safety-critical tasks at the establishment.

Ensuring adequate standards and levels of competent staff does not just relate to the operation of the plant and processes but will extend to the design, commissioning, inspection and maintenance of such facilities, including the ability to undertake risk assessments, implement improvements and manage change. This requirement for adequate competence is not restricted to technical staff and extends all the way up to the senior managers and directors, who also need to be suitably competent to provide oversight and leadership in process safety.

Ensuring adequate standards and levels of competent staff does not just relate to the operation of the plant and processes but will extend to the design, commissioning, inspection and maintenance of such facilities

In practice, this flexibility of goal setting legislation is underpinned by the industry and regulator cooperating to provide guidance and generate training standards and process safety training. Such standards include COGENT Skills for Science Based Industries Process Safety Leadership (PSL)2, Process Safety Management Foundations (PSMF)3, and Process Safety Management for Operations (PSMO). These three courses which have been developed around national training standards content, are approved by the UK Process Safety Management Project Board, and are supplemented by specific technical training such as the Life Sciences and Industrial Science Manufacturing Technician Apprenticeship. In addition, organisations such as the Institution of Chemical Engineers provide bespoke and targeted training.

University Bachelor’s courses in chemical engineering are available for many UK universities together with post graduate MSc qualifications from universities such as Aberdeen and Sheffield, and the MSc in chemical process engineering from University College London.

Within the UK there is guidance on how to ensure adequate staffing levels at chemical and major hazard facilities. HSE has published guidance on “Assessing the Safety of Staffing Arrangements for Process Operations in the Chemical and Allied Industries” (Entec CRR348/2001)4. This has been supplemented by the Energy Institute’s guidance on “Safe staffing arrangements”5. This guidance is not designed to calculate a minimum or optimum number of staff to control a process, but to flag where staffing arrangements may not be sufficiently robust.


As with the UK, German authorities do not specify minimum staffing levels or minimum qualification levels for chemical plants, as the operating responsibility (including staffing) lies with the company. The competent authority in Germany expects the company to have enough appropriately-qualified staff to be able to operate safely at all times. This means that the night shift is staffed similarly to the day shift for the relevant operations.

Training is part of a continual programme. In a control room you would expect to find a number of qualified trade employees under the supervision of a master-trade qualified member of staff. For the whole of the plant there is likely to be an operations engineer (Bachelor’s degree, more likely Master’s qualified) supervising the whole of operations, but not generally in the control room all the time. On a continuous process there will be a duty engineer who is on call. The staffing ratios will depend on type of operations, degree of automation, complexity of plant etc. In addition to these operations staff, there will be maintenance and inspection staff of varying grades of qualification depending on the site.

The competency and staffing requirements within the UK and Germany are broadly similar, the main difference being in the structured training available for technicians and trades within Germany

There are formal technical training frameworks within Germany. Firstly, there is an apprenticeship-based “Chemikant – trade”6 regulated under “Ordinance on Vocational Training as a Chemist, 10 June 2009”. This training takes three years and six months and comprises both compulsory and elective elements. The next grade, “Industriemeister – Fachrichtung Chemie”7 is a “master trade qualification”. The requirements are a completed, recognised trade qualification in a chemical trade, or a recognised trade qualification plus at least one year’s practical experience, or at least 4 years’ practical experience. Next is “State-Certified Engineer/State Examined Technician”. The training takes longer than the master trade qualification. Within the European and German Qualification Framework (EQR/DQR) the qualification is set at level 6 of 8. This would put it at the same level as the master trade qualification or a Bachelor’s qualification. However, the VDI (Association of German Engineers) is clear that the competency of the three qualifications is very different, and it should not be assumed that they enable the same work to be carried out.

Graduate training is Bachelor’s (BSc, BEng) – issued by a Hochschule or Universität (tertiary education). Chemical engineering qualifications may have a number of titles: Chemieingenieurwesen, Verfahrenstechnik, Technische Chemie. DECHEMA, the German Association of Chemical Engineering (and sister organisation of IChemE) published a recommendation on education in the field of process and plant engineering within the Bologna Process (2012). A Master’s degree is also available, building on the formal bachelor graduate qualifications8.

Therefore, the competency and staffing requirements within the UK and Germany are broadly similar, the main difference being in the structured training available for technicians and trades within Germany.

The United States

Process safety in the oil and chemical industry in the US is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) process safety management regulations and by the EPA’s risk management programme regulations. In those regulations there are no specific process technician recruitment and hiring standards but there are requirements for on-the-job training, ie after the employee has been hired. For pre-hiring a process technician, there may be two-year technical colleges locally available which offer associate degrees in chemical process technology (PTEC). The availability of a two-year associate degree will depend on the location of the manufacturing facility. Colleges offering a two-year PTEC associate degree are typically located near concentrations of oil refineries and chemical plants, eg the Gulf Coast area of Texas and Louisiana.

A recent paper in the Journal of Technology, Management and Applied Engineering by Johnson and Bartsch9 states that one year of PTEC education is worth 5.3 years of experience as a process technician. Refineries and chemical plants can save significant training dollars by hiring PTEC graduates with two-year degrees.

In the US, major oil refining and chemical manufacturing complexes are concentrated in three states – Texas, Louisiana and California. Consequently, outside of these three states the industry tends to be located as individual facilities. This makes it problematic to have local educational institutions where potential employees may be trained in the basics of PTEC.

The North American Process Technology Alliance

NAPTA (www.naptaonline.org) is an organisation of 45 process technology (PTEC) education providers and their business, industry, and community advisors cooperatively working toward their common goals. The colleges are located around the US but with a cluster along the Gulf of Mexico Coast. For example, there are NAPTA colleges in Alaska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, California, New Jersey, Washington, Illinois and Oklahoma as well as in the Louisiana and Texas Gulf Coast region. In Pennsylvania, the Community College of Beaver County offers PTEC courses using the NAPTA core curriculum to serve the needs of the new Shell ethylene cracker under construction near Pittsburgh.

NAPTA is the national standard-bearer of the PTEC curriculum. NAPTA audits college PTEC degree programmes in North America and endorses those that meet its criteria. Approximately 20 colleges have received the NAPTA endorsement. The core courses offered at NAPTA-endorsed colleges and universities are as follows.

  • Introduction to process technology;
  • Process technology I – equipment;
  • Process instrumentation;
  • Process technology II – systems;
  • Safety, health and environment;
  • Process technology III – operations;
  • Quality; and
  • Process troubleshooting.

As Eric Newby, the president/executive director of NAPTA says: “We don’t teach them how to run plants, we teach them how plants run”, referring to the core technical curriculum in the PTEC programmes. With an extensive background in process operations, Newby is an ardent advocate for PTEC education. He organises NAPTA instructor conferences, troubleshooting competitions for PTEC students and other national meetings to coordinate NAPTA activities.

Houston, Texas area

Texas: The Houston Gulf Coast is home to The US’ highest concentration of petrochemical plants and oil refineries

The highest concentration of petrochemical plants and oil refineries in the US is in the Houston Gulf Coast area. In that area there is a continuing need for qualified process technology technicians. A consortium of nine colleges with 32 campuses has been formed in the greater Houston area. These colleges offer two-year associate degrees with the opportunity to continue to study for a Bachelor’s. They offer many courses leading to job opportunities in the process industries. Courses are available in process technology, instrumentation,
electrical, welding, pipefitting, machining, and millwrighting. 

The colleges are connected by the website www.petrochemworks.com, which permits potential students to:

  • research the diverse types of employment opportunities in the process industries;
  • determine which companies are hiring process technicians (a quick search of the petrochemworks website showed 14 major companies in the Gulf Coast area that were hiring with over 11,000 job openings listed); and
  • research where to get PTEC training and become job marketable in two years. The website lists all 32 campuses and the courses that they offer. It states: “You can make US$70,000 or more”, certainly an incentive for an 18-year-old just leaving high school!

Layton Childress, dean of applied sciences at Lee College in Baytown, Texas (one of the colleges on the petrochemworks website) reported that the two-year associate degree gets lots of support from business and industry. For example, the petrochemworks website is funded by the banking company JP MorganChase. In addition to the academic portion of the programme, the oil and chemical companies hire students as interns for 8–12 weeks. The internship allows the facilities to evaluate potential employees before offering them fulltime positions. Not every student survives the academic rigour. In a typical intake of 24 students, the college may lose 5–10 of them before the end of the programme.


Not every two-year college is located near a cluster of chemical plants or oil refineries. For example, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College (NEO A&M, which is a member of NAPTA) located in Miami, Oklahoma. Mark Grigsby heads up the PTEC programme which has been offered at the college since 2012 when the college was approached by Ceradyne Boron Products, located in Quapaw, Oklahoma about 16 km from Miami. Ceradyne was having issues attracting qualified employees to work in its boron facility, which manufactures products used in nuclear power plants. Ceradyne is now a wholly-owned
subsidiary of the 3M Company.

NEO A&M has used its PTEC programme to help promote economic development in Oklahoma. In addition to 3M Ceradyne, companies using the programme include CVR Refining, CF Industries, Umicore, and an Evonik Industries chemical plant. Grigsby says that the goal of the programme is to provide candidates for well-paid jobs and to meet the needs of the business community. One issue he reports is that it can be difficult to recruit PTEC students from high schools because in the rural areas of Oklahoma and Kansas, potential recruits don’t understand what process technology is.

NEO A&M’s PTEC programme has about 30 students currently enrolled. A few of those are finding the mathematics and chemistry sections challenging and may decide to drop out. On the other hand, everyone who graduates after two years is offered a position in industry.


Another example of a PTEC programme located away from the Gulf Coast concentration of chemical plants and oil refineries is in the northwest state of Montana, bordering with Canada. Its largest city, Billings, has a population of 110,000. There are three refineries in the Billings area – ExxonMobil, Phillips 66, and CHS. Another refinery, Calumet Montana Refining, is in Great Falls, Montana, about 322 km from Billings.

Montana State University Billings (MSUB) offers a two-year Process Plant Technology Associate of Applied Science degree. Andrew Sullivan is the instructor, process plant technology. He is a former ExxonMobil refinery supervisor. All the courses that must be taken are listed on the MSUB website (bit.ly/2xit91x).

The programme produces around 20 graduates each year. Typical incoming students range from recent high school graduates to middle-aged individuals. Many students have served in the military. After two years, they can apply for a position at one of the oil refineries or chemical plants in Montana or the adjacent states. Some hiring companies have a policy of hiring either PTEC graduates from MSUB or applicants with at least five years’ relevant experience. According to the MSUB web, newly-hired PTEC employees can expect to earn an average of US$56,821 per year.


Singapore: There are more than 60 oil and chemical industry facilities on Jurong Island Coast

Probably the most interesting and comprehensive programme that we looked at was in Singapore. The island city-state just south of the Malaysian peninsula has an area of 72,000 ha and a population of 5.6m, making it the third-most densely populated country in the world (after Macau and Monaco). Jurong Island, connected to the main island of Singapore by a causeway, is home to Singapore’s oil refining and petrochemical industries. There are reported to be more than 60 oil and chemical industry facilities on Jurong Island. Singapore is one of the top three oil refining centres in the world.

Because of the magnitude of the chemicals and oil sectors on Jurong Island there is a continuing demand for well-trained process technicians to work at its many facilities. The Singapore Institute of Technical Education (ITE) fills that need. ITE is a public vocational education institution that provides pre-employment training to secondary-school leavers and continuing education and training to working adults. It is part of the Ministry of Education.

Because of the magnitude of the chemicals and oil sectors on Jurong Island there is a continuing demand for well-trained process technicians to work at its many facilities

For ITE’s chemical process technician training programme, between 200–300 students are accepted each year (70% male: 30% female). Students begin the programme at age 17, when they have completed secondary school. The goal of the training is to be qualified for a position as a junior process technician in the oil refining or chemical industry.

The course at ITE lasts for two years – it includes instruction on safety, security, occupational safety, plant operations, process instrumentation and control, process equipment, quality assurance, and risk assessment.

For 5.5 months of the two-year programme the students work as interns in a facility, earning S$450/month. This allows them to learn about process equipment such as reactors and furnaces not available for them to work on at ITE. At the end of their two years they receive the National Institute of Technical Education Certificate (Nitec). Upon leaving ITE, all males perform two years’ national service in Singapore. This may be in the Singapore Armed Forces, the Singapore Police Force or the Singapore Civil Defence Force (fire department, ambulance service and emergency response). After their national service they may apply for a position in the chemical process industry. Approximately 80% of the ITE graduates are hired. Typically, the females work in laboratories and the males as process technicians.

The ITE graduates may continue their education to get a polytechnic diploma or a university degree.


With a population of more than 1.3bn, an expanding automobile market, active chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing sectors, India has an increasing need for well qualified chemical process technicians. There are 24 oil refineries in India, including the world’s largest, the Reliance Industries refinery in Gujarat with a published capacity of 1,240,000 bbl/d. In recruiting advertisements in India for chemical process technicians (typically called attendant operator chemical plant, or AOCP) common hiring requirements are a BSc in chemistry or chemical engineering, a two-year diploma in chemistry or chemical engineering, preferably with chemical industry experience.

In India a two-year diploma in chemistry or chemical engineering may be earned at an Industrial Training Institute (ITI). They are approved by the Directorate General of Training (DGT), a body within the Indian Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. The ministry was set up in November 2014 to coordinate all skill development efforts across the country. Industrial Training Institutes predated the Ministry of Skill Development and play a vital role in India’s economy especially in terms of providing skilled manpower in different sectors with varying degrees of expertise.

The DGT consists of the Directorate of Training, and Directorate of Apprentice Training. This includes a network of Industrial Training Institutes in each of the states: Advanced Training institutes (ATIs), Regional Vocational Training Institutes (RVTIs) and other central institutes. A number of training programmes catering to students, trainers and industry requirements are being run through this network. The building blocks for vocational training in the country - ITIs - play a vital role in the Indian economy by providing skilled manpower in different sectors with varying levels of expertise. For the process industries, technicians such as pipe fitters and welders are ITI trained.

At present, there are 2,200 government-run ITIs in India. In addition, there are 9,700 privately-owned counterparts, known as Industrial Training Centres (ITCs). Training is available in 126 trades (73 engineering, 48 non-engineering, and five exclusively for visually-impaired students). The training lasts for 1–2 years. At the end the students must undergo additional practical training for 1 or 2 years in their trade in a company. A National Trade Certificate is awarded to successful trainees. Having completed the academic and the practical training they may then apply to receive the national Council of Vocational Training Certificate.

The ITIs and ITCs offer training in more than 130 trades. Only a small number of them offer training specific to the oil and chemical industries. Typical courses that may be offered are:

  • Attendant operator, chemical plant (AOCP);
  • Instrument mechanic, chemical plant;
  • Laboratory assistant chemical plant;
  • Maintenance;
  • Mechanical chemical plant;
  • Fire technology and industrial safety management; and
  • Health, safety and environment.

Information from Indian contract manufacturing and pharmaceutical intermediate companies is that typical plant operators have a BSc in chemistry, supervisors have an MSc in chemistry, or a BSc in engineering. Control-room positions are typically filled by staff with engineering degrees. For all positions, additional process specific training is given beyond the requirements for a university-level degree. Less experienced operators may be ‘apprenticed’ to more experienced personnel.

We were unable to speak directly to any oil or petroleum companies which hire graduates from the training programmes offered by the ITIs and ITCs. Therefore, it’s not possible to draw any conclusions about the value of the oil and chemical industry courses offered by the ITIs and ITCs.


Australia is a major exporter of agricultural products, particularly wheat and wool, minerals such as iron ore and gold, and energy in the form of coal and liquified natural gas. With the recent natural resources boom, there has not been a sufficient supply of competent workers. In addition, the workforce is ageing, with workers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s moving towards retirement. As a result, there is an ongoing need for qualified personnel in the natural resources arena (on-shore and off-shore oil exploration, chemicals manufacturing and mining). Safety in Australia is legislated within each individual state or territory, meaning that including the Commonwealth, there are nine different legal jurisdictions, each with slightly different requirements. For process safety, Australia operates under a safety case regime which is rigorously enforced by each jurisdiction.

Australia has a system of Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges, which offer courses in most larger towns and cities at technical schools and community colleges. In addition, individuals and companies can be accredited as a Registered Training Organisation and offer courses and modules of training.

There are several education levels for vocational training:

  • Certificate 1 is a basic qualification, necessarily linked to other simple vocational competencies.
  • Certificate 2 is a trade-specific competency, that would be linked to other competencies to become a trade qualification.
  • Certificate 3 is a trade qualification, where several competencies are brought together as a demonstrated trade.
  • Certificate 4 demonstrates the person’s qualification in a field of vocational education and training.
  • Diploma.
  • Advanced diploma.

Manufacturing Skills Australia is the current training package developer for the PMA08 - Chemical, Hydrocarbons Training Package which details the technical competency requirements for process plant technician, ie Certificate 2 to Advanced Diploma. These are recognised across all jurisdictions.

Because of the mining and natural resources boom in Western Australia it has a Centre of Excellence specialising in process training – the Australian Centre for Process Training (ACEPT) which is part of the Perth South Metropolitan TAFE. ACEPT offers course in process plant technology from Certificate 2 to Certificate 4, Diploma and Advanced Diploma.

In addition, the upstream industry established a Common Safety Training Programme (CSTP) and a Supervisor Safety Training Programme (SSTP) to form a consistent safety introduction across all sites. This is supplemented by local training at the facility.

Observations and conclusions

There are no standardised approaches to recruitment and training within the chemicals and oil refining sectors around the world. It is very much ‘horses for courses’ which ensures flexibility but leaves the door open for a wide variation in the minimum skillset for process technicians and night time supervision. However, there are some common themes associated with having a degree or higher degree in process engineering for oversight roles and a ‘locally’ defined or accepted normal level of technical qualification for all plant operational roles.

Leaving aside the national service elements, the system in Singapore of a fully-integrated secondary school through to technical qualification framework forms a useful benchmark of good practice. Oil refining and chemical manufacturing facilities are becoming more complex, with new advanced process controls being used in most facilities. There is continued pressure from communities and stakeholder groups for incident-free operation of facilities. An incident at a chemical plant or an oil refinery can quickly cost a company very significant amounts of money, from lost production, lawsuits, rebuilding costs etc. Process technicians are at the frontline of safe and efficient day-to-day operation. They need to be well educated and trained.

Encouragingly, process technician jobs in the oil and chemical industries are desirable and pay more than the industrial average. Academic studies have shown that companies can save training costs by hiring process technicians who have a two-year degree in chemical process technology (PTEC). The oil and chemical industries should move further in the direction of hiring process technicians who have a two-year associate degree in process technology. The oil and chemical industries and colleges and universities should collaborate in developing programmes for candidates who wish to have a career in those industries. The oil and chemical industries and academia should carefully evaluate programmes such as NAPTA and petrochemworks.


1. The Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations 2015, Guidance to the Regulations, L111, HSE Books, 3rd Edition, 2015

2. Cogent Skills for Science and Industry, bit.ly/2joC1gU

3. Cogent Skills for Science and Industry, bit.ly/1DBL5Dm

4. HSE, Assessing the safety of staffing arrangements for process operations in the chemical and allied industries, 2001, bit.ly/2y5bKr7

5. Energy Institute’s guidance on Safe staffing arrangements: EI Safe staffing arrangements - user guide for CRR348/2001 methodology: Practical application of Entec/HSE process operations staffing assesment methodology and its extension to automated plant and/or equipment, bit.ly/2w89XEs

6. Verordnung über die Berufsausbildung zum Chemikanten/zur Chemikantin ChemikAusbV 2009, Ausfertigungsdatum: 10.06.2009, bit.ly/2fiRx9P

7. Verordnung über die Prüfung zum anerkannten Abschluss Geprüfter Industriemeister/Geprüfte Industriemeisterin - Fachrichtung Chemie vom 15 September 2004 (BGBl. I S. 2337), die durch Artikel 25 der Verordnung vom 26. März 2014 (BGBl. I S. 274) geändert worden ist, bit.ly/2x0D7mk

8. Empfehlung zur Ausbildung im Rahmen des Bologna Prozesses Lehrprofi l, “Prozess - und Anlagensicherheit”, 2012. ISBN: 978-3-89746-134-5

9. Johnson, GE and Bartsch, RA (2017), “Comparing Process Technology Education and Work Experience”, The Journal of Technology, Management and Applied Engineering 3, (2), pp2-15


The authors would like to acknowledge the help of the following in writing this paper: Trish Kerin, IChemE; Kaye Butler, Chevron Australia; Eric Newby, North American Process Technology Alliance; Layton Childress, Lee College, Baytown, Texas; Mark Grigsby, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College; Andrew Sullivan, Montana State University Billings; Prerna Jain, Texas A&M University; Sim Hong Kwang, ITE College East, Singapore; Gaurav Mediratta, SABIC, India; and Mark Hailwood, LUBW, Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

Article By

John Bresland

Former chair of the US Chemical Safety Board

Ian Travers

Former Deputy Director (Chemical Regulation), HSE

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