Energy and Chemical Plant Operator
Kaiwhakahaere Rawa Pūngao, Rawa Matū
This job is sometimes referred to by alternative titles
Energy and chemical plant operators monitor, control, and adjust equipment at gas plants, oil wells, and power stations to make sure they are functioning safely and efficiently.
New energy and chemical plant operators usually earn
$50K-$70K per year
Energy and chemical plant operators with five or more years' experience usually earn
$80K-$100K per year
Source: Extractive Industries Training Organisation (EXITO) - now part of the New Zealand Motor Industry Training Organisation (MITO).
Pay for energy and chemical plant operators varies depending on experience, responsibilities and whether they work onshore or offshore.
- New energy and chemical plant operators usually start on between $50,000 and $70,000 a year.
- With five or more years' experience they can earn between $80,000 and $100,000.
- Those working offshore or in supervisory roles can earn more than $100,000.
Source: Extractive Industries Training Organisation (EXITO) - now part of the New Zealand Motor training Industry Organisation (MITO).
What you will do
Energy and chemical plant operators may do some or all of the following:
- monitor equipment that processes chemicals, natural gas, petroleum products, or electricity
- make adjustments to equipment to ensure it's functioning safely and efficiently
- take samples of water and chemicals used in the production processes
- record equipment pressure and temperature readings
- arrange maintenance and repairs of equipment.
Skills and knowledge
Energy and chemical plant operators need to have:
- knowledge of production processes for gas, oil or electricity
- an understanding of safety regulations and procedures
- knowledge of mechanics and machines.
Energy and chemical plant operators:
- usually work 12-hour shifts that may include a combination of day and night shifts, and often get an equal number of days off for each shift they work
- usually work outdoors at energy sites such as gas plants, oil rigs and power stations, unless they are panel operators who work solely indoors in control rooms and offices
- work in most weather conditions, and often in noisy and potentially hazardous locations.
What's the job really like?
Rhys Harvey - Operator Technician
What was it like starting out in the job?
"Well, on my first day at the Kapuni gas plant, I thought I'd never be able to do the job. It was just miles and miles of pipes, and vessels, and noises. But they give you a mentor to help train you, and the company has paid me to get qualifications. I've done National Certificates in Energy and Chemical Plant Processing up to Level 4."
What does the job involve?
"My job is to control the pressures, temperatures, flows and levels at different stages of the process. In the control room I'm watching different computer screens that show the pipes and other equipment."
What do you like about the job?
"I like the shift work. We do 12-hour days for six days and then get six days off, which is good. There's a variety of work. You're not stuck in an office, or outside all the time - it's a bit of both.
"And I like the responsibility. Pohokura, the plant where I'm working, produces 40 percent of New Zealand's gas, so there's a high level of responsibility to keep the gas flowing. And it's good pay."
Zachary from New Plymouth finds out about the work of a petrochemical field operator - 7.46 mins (Video courtesy of Dave Mason Productions)
Zachary: Hi, I’m Zac, I’m 17 years old, I go to New Plymouth Boy’s High School and to day I’m here to find out what a petro-chemical field operator does.
Clinton: And what better place to learn than in the Oil rich Taranaki at Shell Todd Oil Services with Operations Capability Manager Maurice Gilmour.
Maurice: Hi Zac, how’re ya going?
Zac: Hi, good.
Maurice: Maurice, pleased to meet you. Welcome to your first day. Are you keen to get into it?
Maurice: Perfect. Come on board and we’ll show you around.
Clinton: Shell Todd Oil services operates a number of Taranaki fields while Shell Exploration NZ operates Pohokura where well-stream fluids from its onshore and offshore wells are processed at the production station. Pohokura produces gas and light oil condensate. The condensate is pumped to the ports for refining whilst gas is fed directly into the national grid to our doorstep, all of which is controlled by the Petrochemical Operator, and, in this case, is done remotely 20 kms away.
Maurice: Well Zac, this is the hub of it all. This is where Pohokura is controlled. So this is what we call our RCR, which is the remote control room. This is where our sole operator sits and operates the Pohokura production station.
Zac: It’s a lot more high-tech than I thought actually.
Maurice: Technology has made some changes from the way we used to operate to the way we operate today. And Pohokura is a good example of that, where technology has enabled us to have an unmanned plant. For most of our operating time we have a control room operator – remotely he looks after the plant on his own.
Zac: How’s it going? I’m Zac
Rhys: Hi Zac, nice to meet you, I’m Rhys.
Zac: So you’re an operator, are you?
Rhys: Yeah that’s right.
Zac: So what do we do if something does go wrong?
Rhys: Well we’ll get an alarm in and we’ll respond accordingly, depending on what the alarm is.
Rhys: So that’s just an alarm come up for high vibration. Usually 95% of the problems we can sort from here.
Rhys: So today Zac we’re lucky enough to have an operator onsite to immediately have a look at the problem that we’ve got. Do you want to just push the button on the radio here and ask to copy Kieran?
Zac: Kieran, do you copy?
Kieran: Yeah, go ahead.
Rhys: Just tell him that you’ve got high vibration on the condensate rundown cooler.
Zac: We’ve got high vibration on the condensate cooler.
Kieran: Yeah I’ll go and have a look for you.
Zac: Cool, cheers.
Zac: It all seems pretty simple doesn’t it? Just lax back, click a few buttons…
Rhys: Yeah, a bit of a Homer Simpson job, people think! But it’s not really, a lot of training goes into it - usually five years in the field or so, a lot of courses and qualifications and that kind of thing.
Zac: How do you learn all of that?
Rhys: Well you can start off by reading that. This is the operating manual for Pohokura. If you memorise that, we’ll let you loose on the plant!
Zac: Sounds like a plan!
Maurice: Petrochemical field operators, basically they start in the field, they get an understanding of the wells, the separating processes, product temperature, flows. Once they get a feeling for that, they also start to learn the control room
Zac: This stuff is pretty intense Rhys!
Rhys: Come on, you’ll get it!
Maurice: In terms of breaking into the industry, we’ve taken raw people who have had no hydro carbon skills before, but equally we’ve taken people who have trade qualifications and that might be instrumentation electrical, it could be mechanical, and even just people who have worked on a hydro carbon plant so they already know and are aware of the hazards.
Rhys: So did you get through it, did ya?
Zac: Of course! All sorted!
Rhys: Did you really?
Zac: Yeah, nah…not really eh!
Rhys: Don’t worry! It takes a lot of years to get to this point!
Rhys: I’ve got to go out there anyway now and routine activities. How about we send you out with Maurice and he can show you around?
Zac: Cool, awesome. Let’s do it.
Clinton: Dealing with dangerous substances is expected in this job so naturally safety is number one on the list of priorities and its one Zac needs to be competent in before he can progress.
Maurice: Safety for us is huge. I mean safety is number one. It comes above production, it comes above finance. So for anybody coming on to our sites, they all go through an HSE induction and that’s really around our site contains hazards. It’s about making sure people go home the way they cam to work.
Rhys: Ok Zac, this is one of main gas lines. From here it goes it goes and leaves the plane and joins onto the Maui pipeline and the end users will take it from there.
Maurice: Often our operations team are required to take samples, just to make sure we have got our specifications right, and are meeting the demands of the market. And failure to do so can cause some dramas for the end user, so it’s really important that we get those specifications right on the button before we put the product out the gate.
Zac: So how important is it to do these tests?
Rhys: It is important that we get it right because we’re supplying 40% of New Zealand’s gas and we’ve got make sure that the gas meets the standard.
Zac: That’s a lot of people!
Rhys: It is a lot of people.
Clinton: Just as important is ensuring the steady flow of oil to meet market demand. Assurance attained by regular maintenance.
Rhys: Ok Zac, so this is a pig and we’re going to launch it down our condensate pipe line to the tank farm.
Zac: So what’s a pig and why are we launching it?
Rhys: “Pig” is an acronym for Pipe Line Inspection Gauge. Some people say it’s because it squeals as it goes down the pipe line, but it’s used for cleaning the pipe line. It’s quite dangerous – there’s quite a bit of hydro carbon vapour that will come out so make sure there’s no electronic equipment and that kind of thing. It’s a wee bit complicated, you always need two people to do it.
Zac: There’s actually a lot more to this job than I thought. It’s not just all about sitting in the control room and playing with buttons, is it?
Rhys: No, there’s certainly hands-on aspects but you learn as you go and you have mentors there, so if you’re not comfortable doing anything, you can always ask.
Zac: So should we launch this beast then, eh?
Rhys: Yeah, absolutely! There’s already one in there though – you can go and launch though it if you like.
Zac: Let’s do it!
Zac: Oh I’ll do this all day!
Rhys: Keep going!
Maurice: The rewards for people? I guess it depends on the drive of the individuals, but there is progression through companies and even international travel. So the options are endless and I guess it just depends on how big people want their vision to go.
Rhys: Do you here that? She’s going now.
Zac: Yeah, yep. Good.
Rhys: A job well done. Let’s go.
Clinton: Zac may have successfully launched his pig but does Maurice think he’s got what it takes to launch his career?
Maurice: Yep, he’d make a good operator and you may see him in his overalls yet!
Zac: I think the job was very interesting – a bit of variety between working in the control room and working out here onsite and definitely a job I think I could get into.
Clinton: And if you want to get into a career as a Petrochemical Operator you can start by attaining your National Certificate in Energy and Chemical Plant (Process Operation) Level 2 and 3 which can be learnt on the job with support from employers and the Extractive Industries training Organization
The job offers a blend of indoor / outdoor work usually on a rotating shift roster. With the discovery of new reservoirs, the demand for petrochemical operators is increasing so job opportunities are high as is the potential for travel as reservoirs are located around the world.
There are no specific entry requirements to work as an energy and chemical plant operator, though some employers prefer you to have completed a national certificate in energy and chemical plant operations. Qualifications are available through the New Zealand Motor Industry Training Organisation (MITO).
People without experience in the industry can take a pre-employment Certificate in Process Operations at the Western Institute of Technology which helps prepare students for getting a job and training as an energy and chemical plant operator.
Energy and chemical plant operators gain many skills on the job, and most companies offer formal in-house training on their systems, processes, and safety procedures.
- MITO website - information on national qualifications available in energy and chemical plant operations
- Western Institute of Technology at Taranaki website - information about the Certificate in Process Operations (Oil and Gas)
It is recommended you have at least NCEA Level 1 English, and Level 2 maths, science, computing or subjects related to mechanical engineering, or electronic engineering.
Energy and chemical plant operators need to be:
- patient, efficient and practical
- accurate, with an eye for detail
- able to work well in a team or alone
- able to follow instructions and make good judgments
- good at analysis and problem-solving
- good communicators.
Useful experience for energy and chemical plant operators includes:
- work with motors, pumps, machinery or heavy equipment
- work in a factory or manufacturing plant
- welding and metalwork.
Find out more about training
- New Zealand Motor Industry Training Organisation (MITO)
- (04) 494 0005 - mito.org.nz - www.mito.org.nz
What are the chances of getting a job?
Oil and gas industry needs more operators
Opportunities exist in the oil and gas industry because of:
- high retirement rates – about half the existing operators will reach retirement age between 2011 and 2020
- strong international demand for operators means New Zealand companies are competing globally for staff.
Pre-employment course helps increase chances of getting work and training
Without industry experience it can be hard to secure a training position as an energy and chemical plant operator. The Western Institute of Technology in Taranaki offers a one year pre-employment course for people wanting to work in the industry. It accepts 16 students a year and most graduates get job offers after graduating.
Employers of energy and chemical plant operators
Energy and chemical plant operators work for:
- oil exploration and refining companies
- gas production companies
- electricity generators such as hydro and geothermal stations
- chemical, fertiliser, or pulp and paper manufacturers.
Most of these companies are large and employ hundreds of staff.
- Beardsley, C, 'Report on the National Survey of the NZ Petrochemical Industry', June 2008, (www.exito.org.nz).
- Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, ‘2003-2012 Occupation Data’ (prepared for Careers New Zealand), 2012.
- Petroleum Skills Association, Operators Job Information, accessed July 2011, (www.petroskills.co.nz).
- Western Institute of Technology at Taranaki, 'Course and Career Information', accessed May 2013, (www.witt.ac.nz).
Progression and specialisations
With experience and on-the-job training, energy and chemical plant operators may move into supervisory or managerial positions. They can also progress to become panel operators.
- Panel Operator
- Panel operators work mainly in rooms where they monitor and control a plant's production and equipment as shown on banks of computer screens.
Last updated 1 June 2017