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Petroleum Refining Industry Job Descriptions, Careers in the Petroleum Refining Industry, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Industry, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Workers in the petroleum refining industry help turn crude oil into petroleum products that are used to heat buildings, power motor vehicles and machinery, and generate electric power. Petroleum products have many other uses as well. For example, the asphalt used in making and repairing roads is a refined petroleum product. Petrochemicals, which are used by a wide range of industries to make plastics, detergents, synthetic rubber, fertilizers, and many other products, are another major product of petroleum refining.

Crude oil, or petroleum, is processed at refineries. Most refineries are located near oil fields, industrial centers, or ports where oceangoing crude oil tankers can dock. Some refineries are small, processing as little as 150 barrels a day. Large plants may handle more than 600,000 barrels daily. Workforces at refineries range from a handful to several dozen employees.

The petroleum refining industry employs about 60,000 workers. Many of these workers take part in the actual operation of the plant. The refining of crude oil is highly automated. Most workers use computerized equipment and special instruments to measure and regulate the refining process. The liquids and gases flowing through the refinery must always be kept at the right temperature and pressure. Refinery operators and assistants are responsible for the processing of the petroleum, while pump operators and their helpers operate and maintain pumps that move the raw materials and finished products through the refinery.

In most cases, crude oil is refined by a process known as condensation, or distillation. The crude oil is heated as it flows through pipes and its vapors rise into a tower. In the tower the various parts—called fractions—of the oil separate. The heaviest parts settle to the bottom of the tower and are drawn off to be processed into, for example, asphalt and thick fuel oils used to generate electric power. Lighter parts are drawn off at the middle of the tower and are used to run jet and diesel engines. The lightest parts rise to the top of the tower, where they are drawn off for use as gasoline and various other types of gases.

The heavier products are often refined further by a process called cracking. This process is used to yield more gasoline, which is in great demand. Water and chemical impurities are removed by treaters who operate special treating units.

Other workers employed in the petroleum refining industry include chemists, chemical technicians, and chemical engineers, as well as engineers of other kinds. Managers and many other kinds of office workers are also needed. Maintenance workers help repair, replace, and clean the pipes, tanks, towers, and machines that make up a refinery.

Education and Training Requirements

Education requirements vary according to the job. Most operators need a high school education. Beginning refinery workers often start as the helpers of experienced workers and learn on the job. Some companies offer formal classes in

Many of the workers in the petroleum refining industry take part in the operation of the plant. (© Keith Dannemiller/Corbis.)

plant operation. They also train some employees for jobs maintaining the special equipment used in refineries. Engineers, managers, and other professionals need a bachelor's degree.

Getting the Job

You can apply directly to oil refineries for a job. They sometimes place want ads in newspapers. Your state employment office and school placement office may also be able to help you find a job.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Workers can advance as they gain experience. A pumper's helper, for example, can eventually become a still pump operator and supervise other workers. Some workers advance by getting training in one or more of the skilled maintenance trades, such as boiler making or instrument repair.

Employment in the refinery industry has declined dramatically since the 1990s, and the outlook for production workers is expected to be poor through 2014. Automated plants, more efficient production processes, and pressures resulting from foreign competition are anticipated to limit the demand. Maintenance and technical workers who can work with complex refinery equipment should have the best opportunities. Petroleum engineers and other professionals involved in the refining process should also be in high demand.

Working Conditions

Refineries are generally safe places in which to work, although some workers have to climb high ladders. Others are exposed to heat and unpleasant odors. Workers in the petroleum refining industry generally work a forty-hour week. Refinery operators may work a rotating shift or be assigned to any one of the three shifts needed to keep a refinery operating around the clock. By contrast, maintenance workers usually work during the day except when there is an emergency breakdown. Many refinery workers belong to labor unions.

Where to Go for More Information

American Petroleum Institute
1220 L St., NW
Washington, DC 20005-4070
(202) 682-8000

Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union
255 Union Blvd
Lakewood, CO 80228
(303) 987-2229

Earnings and Benefits

Workers in the petroleum refining industry earn relatively high wages when compared to employees in other manufacturing industries. Benefits often include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and retirement plans.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesManufacturing & Production