A conversation with Chevron Phillips’ Plant Manager
By Rod Evans
Van Long used a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Florida to launch a career in the petrochemical industry that today finds him occupying the plant manager’s office at Chevron Phillips Chemical’s Cedar Bayou facility in Baytown. The native of Macclenny, Fla., who now calls Clear Lake home, began his career as a mechanical engineer, but soon found himself on a track to become a plant manager. He takes time out from this demanding position to discuss his highly successful career and provide his opinion on the state of the industry and job opportunities for qualified and motivated candidates.
BAHM: Macclenny is a small northern Florida town. What was it like growing up there?
Long: It’s a small country town; the kind of town with only one stop light on Main Street. I grew up on a farm and helped my family raise chickens and hogs.
BAHM: What was the first job you had in the chemical industry after leaving college?
Long: I started my career as a mechanical engineer and was promoted to my first plant manager position with Union Carbide when I was in my mid-30s. At the time, I was one of the youngest plant managers in the industry. Since then, I have been an engineer, plant manager and vice president of health, safety and environment at various mining and chemical companies around the world.
BAHM: When did you begin your career with Chevron Phillips?
Long: I joined Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. in 2001 as plant manager of the Pasadena facility. I was transferred to the Baytown facility in 2008 to oversee the largest expansion project Chevron Phillips has undertaken in decades. In my many years in the petrochemical industry, this is the most exciting time in my career because for the first time in more than a decade we’re building petrochemical capacity in the U.S. thanks to shale resource development. I feel invigorated about the plant’s growth and the long term investment Chevron Phillips is making along the Texas Gulf Coast.
BAHM: Plant manager sounds like an all-encompassing, potentially stressful position. Describe the scope of your responsibilities.
Long: A plant manager is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the plant. The Cedar Bayou facility covers more than 1,400 acres and employs about 750 direct employs and another 500 nested contractors. Due to the construction activity we have going on right now, we have an additional 1,000-plus contractors on site. It is my job to provide leadership and work closely with my management team to ensure the plant is operating safely and is environmentally sound and producing a quality product.
BAHM: What does a typical day for you look like?
Long: I usually arrive at work at 7 a.m. My first priority is to receive and review an update from all of my department managers on how the plant is operating and then I manage any problems that may be occurring. I am kept informed of operations, maintenance projects, environmental updates, safety plans, and staffing changes. I spend most mornings attending staff meetings.
In the afternoon, I usually leave the plant to attend a luncheon at one of the many community organizations that I am involved with. I am vice chairman of the Baytown/West Chambers County Economic Development Foundation, board of director of the East Harris County Manufacturers Association (EHCMA), on the board of trustees at San Jacinto Methodist Hospital, past-chairman of the Baytown Chamber of Commerce, and a member of the Baytown Rotary Club. I also attend monthly meetings for the Baytown Chamber of Commerce.
After lunch I return to the plant and try to get my boots on the ground as much as possible, which means I like to get out of my suit and tie, put on a hardhat and Nomex and walk through the plant. This is one of the best times of the day for me because I get to talk to the people who work in the field. I listen to their problems and suggestions and get a true sense of what is happening in the plant. I spend the latter part of the day returning phone calls and emails before I leave work around 6 p.m.
BAHM: We’ve heard from leaders in various sectors of the petrochemical industry that there is a shortage of qualified workers to fill the numerous job openings that exist in southeast Texas. What are some of employment areas hardest hit by the lack of quality workers?
Long: I would say the disciplines most in need of qualified applicants are process operators, instrument technicians, electricians, analyzer technicians, welders, pipe fitters, millwrights and machinists.
BAHM: Why are so many sectors of the industry in southeast Texas suffering from a lack of qualified employment applicants?
Long: All sectors that hire craft skill or technical trades are equally affected. Several years ago, high schools were mandated to focus their teaching efforts on college prep courses. This led to a deficiency in craft skill trades because they were dropped from the state curriculum. But Texas House Bill 5, passed last year, has changed the rules for school districts. They are now able to reinstate trade skills and we are hoping this piques the interest of young people to pursue a career in those trades. There is also a need for engineers coming from four-year universities. We mainly recruit chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineers.
BAHM: What advice would you give high school seniors looking to launch a career in the petrochemical industry?
Long: I tell them to involve yourself in learning as much about the industry as possible. Research the various jobs the industry has to offer and select the one that fits your particular interests. Apply yourself to learning the craft and participate in events that showcase your abilities. Take advantage of opportunities that place you in front of industry professionals, such as intern/co-op programs, school organized plant tours or industry forums. Most of all, understand the future that you wish to gain and remove yourself from barriers that could prevent your goals from becoming a reality. This industry needs remarkable people that are confident and professional and who are ready to be challenged in a growing technical career.
BAHM: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Long: I love spending time with my family; my wonderful wife, Susan, and our son, Jonathan, in addition to running, hunting and teaching adult Sunday school classes.