This is part of a series of articles that appeared CETD championed issue of IEM's monthly publication - Jurutera, September 2013. The article is best viewed in its original published form, available from IEM in print or online.
An Interview with John Thurtell, PhDJohn Thurtell, Engineering Global Support Office (EGSO) Manager of ExxonMobil Business Support Centre Malaysia Sdn Bhd, said demand growth in the chemical industry is anticipated to strengthen over time, linked to the growth of the broader economy.
“Most chemical demand growth is in Asia, driven by manufacturing of consumer products for both worldwide export and to serve the growing Asian middle class. These consumers are expected to purchase more packaged goods, appliances, cars, tyres and clothing, many of which are manufactured from chemical products,” he said. “Asia Pacific has accounted for more than two-thirds of global demand growth since 2000, and this trend is expected to continue,” said the Canadian who has just arrived in Malaysia approximately half a year back.
In the next decade, global chemical demand is expected to grow by 50%, driven by improving prosperity in developing countries. Large scale investments are ongoing in the region, particularly in Singapore and China where world-class facilities are being built in the refining and chemical businesses. Thurtell feels this augurs well for the chemical engineering profession as the industry boom will require more engineers with strong professional capabilities in every aspect of the business.
Will the development of the oil & gas sectors in Malaysia & Asia Pacific region affect the chemical engineering profession? In Malaysia, ExxonMobil has been operating for over a century. In fact this year marks the company’s 120 years in Malaysia, which is a significant milestone. Thurtell said: “We are a major oil producer and natural gas supplier in Peninsular Malaysia. We produce about a fifth of the nation’s crude oil and condensate and supply about half of its natural gas needs which is mainly used for power generation. Beyond upstream operations, our Business Support Centre, which is the second largest within ExxonMobil, also hosts ExxonMobil’s IT infrastructure and provides IT support across the globe 24/7.”
As an engineering-based company, ExxonMobil hires a lot of engineers to meet the operating needs of its business. “We also employ engineers in our EGSO in Kuala Lumpur. By virtue of the EGSO functionally reporting to ExxonMobil Research and Engineering (EMRE), our engineers are given the opportunity to provide technical, engineering and application support for ExxonMobil’s manufacturing plants around the world,” he explained, adding that about 95% of its total workforce is Malaysian which “reflects the tremendous local talent we have in our organisation”.
Sadly, many chemical engineers are not registered with the Board of Engineers Malaysia. We asked Thurtell what ExxonMobil is doing to help develop young graduate engineers into professional engineers. He said: “We recognise that engineers play many different roles, depending on their specific job scope. ExxonMobil values the role of certification to ensure compliance with regulatory and process requirements. At ExxonMobil, membership in professional boards is not a prerequisite to employment or an on-the-job requirement as much of our focus is on safe and reliable project management and implementation, as well as operations of our existing facilities. Nevertheless, we are fully supportive of employees who wish to pursue qualifications to improve or maintain their skills and have over the years provided education assistance and reimbursement of the full cost of studies upon successful completion. We also provide internal training programme to strengthen the technical skills of our engineers.”
Chemical engineers can help to promote sustainable development in the country. Thurtell said ExxonMobil’s commitment to operating in an environmentally responsible manner is anchored in its Environment Policy, which fosters appropriate operating practices and training, and requires its facilities to be designed, operated and managed with the goal of preventing environmental incidents.
He added: “Our ‘Protect Tomorrow. Today.’ Initiative guides our management processes to continuously improve environmental performance. Our business operations continue to drive enhancements in environmental performance by incorporating Environmental Business Planning into the annual business planning cycle. In Malaysia, one example where environmental considerations are incorporated into the design basis of our facilities is the use of a hybrid power-generation system on our unmanned satellite platforms. Solar panels produce about half the electricity required, and thermoelectric generators provide the other half. This combination ensures high reliability and low operating costs. Within the global ExxonMobil group, we also focus on various renewable energy initiatives, apart from doing energy optimisation such as co-generation, etc.”
Thurtell shared with us more about ExxonMobil’s new Engineering Global Support Office in Malaysia and the industry as a whole.
Q: What is the role of this new office? Why Malaysia?
As a whole, Malaysia is a very attractive place to do business because the country has a stable economic and political climate, a talented workforce that is proficient in English, and good infrastructure and connectivity. One of the strongest selling points for us is the exceptional talent pool that is available locally for technical skills and which we can grow and develop into world-class engineers. The government agencies that we worked with were also very supportive of bringing in foreign investment.
The goal of the Engineering Global Support Organisation (EGSO) Office in Kuala Lumpur is to work with EMRE’s Central Engineering (US) and Area Engineering Offices around the globe to provide high quality engineering to our manufacturing operations around the world. “However, the interesting part is that, EGSO actually has no projects in Malaysia, since we have no downstream operations in this country. So it only does work for the rest of the world!” Since its opening in July 2011, EGSO has grown quickly and currently has over 50 engineers, predominantly chemical engineers and some mechanical engineers, performing a wide range of technically advanced work for sites in the US, Europe and Asia Pacific. We are trying to create an environment where we enable talented engineers to do great work for our internal customers. The population here that is culturally diverse also helps our newly employed engineers to adapt to different working cultures very easily.
“Personally I like this place too, including its weather! Of course I miss the cold... but people here are friendly, helpful and easy to engage with. So I like this place!”
Q: What are the different positions available to chemical engineers in the Oil & Gas industry? What kind of positions would fresh graduates normally hold and, apart from good academic results, what are the main qualities that MNCs like ExxonMobil look for in fresh graduates?
Like many companies, in addition to excellent academic performance, we look for candidates with leadership and communication skills, analytical capability, honesty and integrity. Other qualities include drive, initiative, perseverance and adaptability.
For the EGSO, we hire engineers to provide technical, engineering and application support for ExxonMobil’s refineries around the world. Our new employees start as engineers performing a wide range of work, ranging from equipment design to optimisation and controls to development of applications. We develop their core technical competencies and proficiencies (breadth and depth) with initial job assignments before broadening into other technical areas.
Some will move on to more senior positions at ExxonMobil’s refineries and chemical plants in Singapore, Thailand, the U.S. or Europe with varied opportunities in engineering, plant manufacturing and even management positions.
Q: From technical specialists to project managers and senior executives, what are the different career paths available to an engineer? Is there a point where they need to make a hard decision to choose between technical and management career paths?
At ExxonMobil, we have a long-term oriented approach to career development, in which we emphasise continuous learning and professional development. We believe this long-term career-oriented approach provides us with a competitive edge by meeting both business and employee needs.
Generally, engineers in ExxonMobil are developed for a technical or management career path, depending on their interest and capability. Some choose to become senior technical professionals by developing depth and breadth of skills within a given area. They are recognised for their achievements and are also designated subject matter experts (SMEs) in their fields providing an invaluable resource for their customers and peers around the world. Others follow the supervisory or management career path where challenging assignments and projects, with both a local and global scope help build their business judgment, leadership and personal effectiveness skills.
It’s not a one-way street, however – some people switch back and forth between these options as they develop their careers. Personally, my career path has moved between technical leadership and management leadership roles multiple times, all within ExxonMobil.
In short, many different career paths are possible, depending on opportunities that arise versus one’s interest and capabilities.
Q: It is an accepted truth that upstream tends to generate more revenue than the downstream. From a corporate point of view, will Oil & Gas be focusing on just the upstream?
Investment decisions in the energy industry are characterised by time horizons measured in decades. At ExxonMobil, we test projects over a wide range of scenarios to ensure that all relevant risks – including financial, commercial, environmental, technical, and others – are properly identified, thoroughly evaluated, and effectively managed.
Our disciplined approach to investing focuses on the efficient use of capital. By combining rigorous standards for project assessment with proven project development expertise, we gain advantage in our investments over the long term. This discipline is applied across our entire portfolio and includes identification of key growth opportunities and divestment of assets that no longer meet our long-term objectives. In addition, we derive significant value from our globally integrated business model which spans upstream, downstream and chemical, which enables us to maximise the value of every molecule that we produce, leverage the advantages of our organisational structure, and optimise collocated manufacturing.
Q: When it comes to loyalty versus faster career growth (i.e. by having shorter career stints in multiple companies), what’s the point of view on this for MNCs like ExxonMobil?
At ExxonMobil, we believe in hiring people for long term careers. We don’t think it’s desirable to achieve short term gains by switching companies at the expense of long term career progressions. Senior leadership positions in ExxonMobil, both technical and management, are typically filled by people with a deep understanding of our operations, which is obtained through long term careers with the company.
Switching companies limits the ability to progress to the positions from which the senior leadership is formed. Because ExxonMobil is an integrated oil and gas group of companies with global operations in the upstream, downstream and chemical businesses, employees are able to pursue a wide range of job opportunities across the businesses and in various locations. They are also able to take advantage of numerous resources and support, such as workplace flexibility programmes, to help them achieve work life balance. Examples include modified work weeks and part-time regular employment to accomodate pressing, family-related needs for a temporary period of time.