How can you get a high-paying job at a refinery? It’s not just about skills

Cole Bellingar, machinist, works in the shop at BP Cherry Point on Thursday, June 22, in Whatcom County.
Cole Bellingar, machinist, works in the shop at BP Cherry Point on Thursday, June 22, in Whatcom County. eabell@bhamherald.com

A job that pays a living wage in Whatcom County can be hard to get, but the right attitude and a willingness to learn can go a long way.

800+ number of applicants for 23 positions during a hiring phase at BP Cherry Point earlier this year.

Earlier this year BP Cherry Point hired 23 people for a variety of positions, with many offering a starting salary package upward of $30 an hour. For those oil refinery positions, the company received applications from more than 800 people, said Pam Brady, director of northwest government and public affairs at BP.

Attracting so many applicants for a small number of positions isn’t new for the refinery, which employs around 800 people. The jobs have received plenty of attention since the refinery opened in 1971. Sometimes early on, new openings were hard to find because many workers tend to stay until retirement.

Job openings have increased as the original workers hired in the 1970s and 1980s hit retirement age. There was a surge of retirement announcements some 15 years ago, and there has been a steady stream of openings since then.

And applications pour in each time BP announces a group of openings. In 2008, for example, 38 openings attracted more than 1,200 applicants, said Michael Abendhoff, BP’s director of media affairs.

So how does someone stand out among the hundreds of job applications and get hired at a refinery?

It is helpful to have certain job skills or training through specific programs at places like Bellingham Technical College, said Chris Colon, a continuous improvement coach at BP. Since technology is rapidly changing at the refinery, the company also is looking for other intangibles when it comes to hiring.

“We’re looking at attitude and a willingness to learn,” Colon said.

People with no experience in the industry do get hired at BP. One recent hire was Kyler Crow, who came on as a operations technician in February.

Crow grew up near the refinery, but studied geology at Washington State University before applying at Cherry Point. He said he went into the hiring process with a positive attitude, and each time he received an email indicating he’d made it to the next round, it reinforced that hope.

It was similar for Megan Young, Myrna Moren and Allie Brown. Young, who also grew up nearby, worked at a pharmacy for 12 years. Moren, who has worked for BP for nine years, has a business degree and previously ran a kettle corn operation. Brown, a process engineer, has a degree in chemical engineering and was recruited at a job fair. All four took some time to talk about the hiring process.

They were all aware their application was one of many, so they tried to keep expectations in check throughout the process. For Young, every email saying she had made it to the next round “was a jump for joy moment.”

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Evan Abell eabell@bhamherald.com

From the applicants’ standpoint, it became clear a willingness to learn was something the company was looking for during the hiring process.

“Even though I had no industrial experience, they picked up that I was eager to learn,” Moren said.

Many jobs at the refinery involve checking all the pipes at the facility. Much of that is done in a high-tech control room, as workers monitor screens to make sure pressure levels are normal and that material is flowing correctly around the facility.

When someone is hired for that kind of job, they will spend at least 40 hours working on simulators before going on a live board, said Matt Grendon, a coker operations technician.

The simulators will throw a variety of different situations at the trainees to see how they respond. Once past the training stage, employees receive regular training on the simulators each month.

With a mix of older and younger employees now making up the Cherry Point workforce, a certain level of openings is expected going forward. Colon, who applied for a job at BP Cherry Point three times before being hired, said persistence is also a good quality.

“I would encourage people not to give up,” Colon said, noting that sometimes people just have a bad test. “There are many opportunities here.”

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz