Richmond Refinery program taps neighbors for future workforce

Richmond Refinery program taps neighbors for future workforce
Yesenia Pineda, a San Pablo native, was hired to work at the Chevron Richmond Refinery after completing the highly successful Regional Occupational Program.

Born and raised into a low-income family in San Pablo, Yesenia Pineda struggled to find a sustainable career after leaving high school. She lacked the money and support to complete a college degree. At the time, she didn’t think to ask whether the area’s largest employer, the Chevron Richmond Refinery, was hiring. She always thought applicants needed at least a college degree to qualify for jobs at Chevron, known to provide high wages and benefits.

“I’ve known Chevron all my life,” Pineda said. “You have to be a super genius with a college background. Normal people don’t go to work there.”

Or so she thought. One day, while feeling stifled by an unfulfilling job, she was invited to an orientation for a career program.

“Where are we going?” she remembered asking her classmate.

“To attend a training program that helps people get jobs at places like Chevron,” he said.

Pineda was skeptical, but she agreed to attend – a decision that has changed her life in the same way it had changed hundreds of lives before her.

After learning about the Regional Occupational Program (ROP), a statewide vocational training program that prepares Californians for successful careers in a wide variety of fields including the fuels and petrochemical industries, Pineda found out she didn’t need to be a genius, or even have college degree, to qualify for opportunities at Chevron. What she needed was just five months of dedication. And the best part, there was no cost for Pineda to participate.

While working the late shift full time, Pineda completed the intensive, the ROP Plant Process Operator course. It paid off – literally. Last year, she was hired into the Chevron Richmond Refinery’s Operator Trainee Program. It’s a lucrative career track, as Process Operator annual salaries in the refining industry typically range from $94,363 to $135,742.

And now, Pineda is enjoying a new normal.

A place hungry for workers

The fuels and petrochemical industries are among the nation’s highest paying, in large because the demand for skilled workers is also among the highest. For that reason, Chevron alone has invested over $400 million since 2013 in education with an emphasis on bolstering STEM expertise (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). “Tomorrow’s Chevron engineers are today’s schoolchildren,” the company states.

The problem, of course, is places such as the Richmond Refinery don’t just need workers tomorrow – they need them today.

That’s why one of the most significant, and effective, training programs has been ROP–that is preparing Richmond area residents for jobs at not just the Chevron Refinery but at the other four refining facilities in the Bay Area.

Established in 1978, the program is a partnership with the Contra Costa County Office of Education (CCCOE). For 18 weeks in classes offered both during the afternoons and evenings, retired and current Chevron workers provide local residents with intensive training on the skills needed for a career in the fuels and petrochemical industries. To date, nearly 900 people have graduated from the program.

While many graduates of ROP can be hired by other refineries, recent data reveals that the majority of Chevron new hires – 17 of 22 last fall – graduated from the program.

“The partnership between the CCCOE and Chevron is a wonderful example of how Industry and Education can work together to provide valuable potentially life changing skills to local community members,” said Jeff Brauning, who runs student programs for the education agency.

Chevron provides the program with grant funding and trainers. Meanwhile, CCCOE provides administrative support, teacher training, curriculum, and accounting/purchasing for the programs.

Brauning said the outcomes he sees regularly from the ROP is “the reason we all go into education.”

“Students who graduate from this program and are hired by the local refineries truly have their lives changed,” he said. “Many of them have financial stability, retirement and benefits for themselves and their families for the first time in their lives.”

And along the way, they not only gain important technical skills, but also confidence. That can be attributed to longtime instructors Mike Joyce, who teaches the Process Plant Operator (PPO) track of the ROP, and John Ghiringhelli, who instructs the Industrial Maintenance Mechanic (IMM) program.

Both instructors, who also happen to be employees at the Chevron Refinery, are wildly popular among students, Brauning said. They, themselves, are also graduates of the program. Joyce graduated from the program just over 40 years ago.

“John and I are proof that this works – we came up through this program too,” he said.

Joyce would eventually land what he called “the best job ever” at Chevron, back when it was called Standard Oil of California. He became a trainer in order to give back.

Another cohort graduates

On June 18, another ROP cohort graduated in a celebration held at the Chevron Rod & Gun Club.

Instructors Joyce and Ghiringhelli were joined by Jeff Belle, head of the CCCOE ROP, and Alan Davis, Refinery General Manager, in awarding certificates to graduates, many who were accompanied by their families.

“I’ve been at Chevron 30 years…I’ve been to Texas, Mississippi, all over the country and this is the best program I’ve seen,” Davis said.

David Orantes, a graduate of the program, said ROP teaches skills that “aren’t necessarily taught to us in high school or college.”

“It gives some people direction and others ideas for new careers to get into,” he said. “It will definitely open your eyes to new job paths.”

At the recent graduation, Belle offered to help the graduates in their job search.

It wasn’t just family of graduates in attendance. Luciano Del Rio, a robotics teacher at Richmond High, came to see two of his students accept their certificates of completion.

Give it a try

Pineda said she’s finally feeling fulfilled about her career and its trajectory.

“The people [at the Chevron Refinery] have been amazing; I have a really good group, really good trainer,” Pineda said. “Being a minority and being a woman, I thought that it might be a challenge, but I came to find out everyone is really accepting. They look out for each other, have each other’s back, and want each other to succeed.”

While the work, of course, can be challenging, Pineda said “it has given me a respect for what’s being done, for all the work that goes into putting gas in your vehicle.”

Her advice for others in her community looking for jobs in the fuels and petrochemical industries: “Give it a try.”

“It difficult dedicating five months to something but it’s also a great opportunity to change your life,” Pineda said. “A lot of people from our community don’t have those options.”

ROP details

The IMM track of the ROP preps students for entry level maintenance and mechanics jobs in the petrochemical and related industries, with a curriculum that includes shop and field safety, plant processes and equipment, hand and power tools and basic welding and pipefitting. Meanwhile, the Process Plant Operator (PPO) track preps students for entry level operator jobs, with coursework that includes job safety, plant process and equipment and instrumentation.

The program doesn’t only focus on technical skills – it offers training in communication and teamwork skills, with job safety emphasized throughout. Toward the end of the program, Chevron Refinery workers, including some ROP graduates, conduct mock interviews as part of training in the job hiring process.

Both ROP tracks run concurrently twice each year. Registration for the next cohort which begins mid-July is now open. For more information on the program and how to apply, visit CCCOE’s site here.