Miguel Hernandez’ career illustrates the value of education
By Rod Evans
Shortly after emigrating from Mexico to the United States at age 18, Miguel Hernandez quickly discovered that getting a good education would be the key to success in his new home.
Hernandez was born in the U.S., but his family moved back to its native Mexico when he was four and it was there in the small town of Zaragoza where he lived until he headed north to Houston in 1986. Once in Texas, Hernandez was able to find work, but his inability to speak English led to him being fired after just a few days on the job.
“I came here with no skills and didn’t speak English at all. I struggled to find a job for six months before I landed a construction job,” Hernandez recalls. “But I was fired because I couldn’t speak English and management thought I posed a safety risk to myself and my co-workers because I couldn’t communicate properly.”
Now, 28 years later, Hernandez has not only learned English, he serves as a prime example of the value of education, hard work and focus. Hernandez, 45, works at the Shell Deer Park refinery as a specialist in the Maintenance Excellence group, teaches pipe fitting courses at Lee College and provides career counseling advice for area high school students. A certified pipe fitter, Hernandez owns two associate’s degrees—in pipe fitting and instrumentation—and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology at Lamar University in Beaumont. His brother, who came to the U.S. a year after Miguel, attended Lee College to become a millwright and works for Lyondell in the Houston area.
In his current position, Hernandez analyzes data to ensure that any maintenance issues at the plant are resolved quickly and safely.
“Maintenance is similar to an assembly line in that you start with notification of a problem identified by someone in operations and as the work order goes through the maintenance process, everyone adds information to it,” Hernandez said. “One of my main goals is to make sure we have quality information added to the process in order to make the next person’s job easier.”
Hernandez, who’s been in his current job for a little over two years, says the plant’s maintenance procedure consists of five steps: notification of an issue, development of a work order, planning, scheduling and, finally, execution.
With 1,600 employees and over 3,000 contractors working at the expansive Shell Deer Park facility, the fifth largest U.S. refinery and the top supplier of jet fuel to the U.S. military, staying on top of maintenance issues is a constant process that requires diligence and a keen attention to detail, which just happen to be skills that Hernandez has in abundance thanks to his training as a pipe fitter.
“After I got fired from my first job, I was fortunate to get hired as a laborer at the Exxon refinery in Baytown. I was working for Brown & Root (now KBR) and the company was sending laborers to school to learn English, so I went to Lee College in Baytown for a couple of semesters before I decided to go into pipe fitting. I got my certification in 1991 and within a couple of years I became a supervisor and I’ve been in leadership roles ever since,” he says. “I was fortunate to find a job in this industry. I could’ve been hired to work in a restaurant, but I just happened to find a job in this industry. Where I came from in Mexico, there was no industry; it was mainly ranches.”
For Hernandez, his ascent from laborer to supervisor began with his ability to master English, which allowed him to pursue a pipe fitting certification, followed by an associate’s degree in the field, which helped separate him from the pack.
“Going to college as a pipe fitter gives you skills that you won’t learn just by doing it,” he says. “You learn a lot of basic things and that’s the big difference between someone who learned in school versus someone with no formal training. But after getting my certification, I found I was lacking in some skills, so I went back and got my associate’s degree.”
After signing on at Shell as an entry level pipe fitter in 2006, Hernandez worked in special assignments before being promoted to the Maintenance Excellence group. Even though he had landed a secure position with one of the world’s largest corporations, he wasn’t content to sit back quietly and let his career play out; he had a desire to give back and help others who come from meager beginnings achieve their goals of gaining solid employment to support their families. That’s why he teaches pipe fitting courses a few nights a week at Lee College and visits area schools to speak with high school students who are struggling to figure out what to do with their lives.
“I tell students that everything starts with a self assessment. You have to determine what you like to do and have a vision and purpose of why you want to do whatever it may be,” he said. “I tell them that junior colleges are a great place to start, even if you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up. That’s why you take basic courses because they expose you to different fields, then you can decide what you like. It’s Ok to not know what you want to do.”
After visiting with students at schools throughout the area, Hernandez believes schools should make more of an effort to inform kids that not everyone needs to attend a four-year college and that there are good paying jobs for young people who elect not to go that route.
“Not everybody wants a four-year degree, but people don’t know there are great careers in our industry,” Hernandez said. “Those students that don’t go to college aren’t going anywhere instead, so many of them wind up in my pipe fitting classes when they’re 24 or 25 years old and by then many of them have kids, are married and have been working dead end jobs for a while, and some have been in trouble with the law. If we can get those kids to go directly into these jobs right out of high school, they can be making $65,000 a year by the time they’re 21.”
Hernandez and his wife, Maria, are fully ensconced in the Bay Area and have three sons, Miguel, 21, Ricardo, 19, and Leo, 13. Hernandez says Miguel is majoring in biology at the University of Houston, while Ricardo is studying to be a commercial pilot at San Jacinto Junior College. While he has carved out a comfortable life for himself and his family, he never intends to stop working to achieve more in his career.
“I would like to have a bigger impact with the company,” he says. “I’d like to finish my career as a manager, maybe a maintenance manager, but I also want to have an impact in the community. That’s why I’m involved with groups like the Economic Alliance that work to make sure people know about the jobs available in our industry. It’s up to us to plant the seed and tell our story. It’s been a great career for me and I get satisfaction seeing others accomplish what I have.”