Vault Q&A: Jay Wilkins, BASF's Rotational Development Program
Vault: How did you find out about BASF's PDP program?
Wilkins: BASF posted on the career site through the engineering center at my school.
Vault: Did you know what sort of engineering position you were looking for when you graduated and started the program?
Wilkins: I really had no idea. That's what I think is so great about this program. When I came out of school, I really didn't know what kind of chemical engineering career I wanted to pursue. For example, there's process engineering, project engineering, product development, operations engineering, instrumentation, control systems engineering, environmental health and safety, and many other derivatives. In addition to the various job functions, there are also many different industries in which to perform them. Just within BASF alone, there are divisions for polymers, agricultural products such as fertilizers and pesticides, cosmetics, catalysts, inorganics, nutritional products, coatings and textures, textiles, pharmaceuticals, and many other chemical groups such as oxo-alcohols and specialty amines.
What I really liked about the rotational program is that not only did you get experience in several different job functions, but also in several different industries within the same company. By the time I got done with the program, I knew exactly what I wanted to do and where I wanted to do it.
When I went through the program, there were three six-month assignments, since then, it's been changed to two nine-month assignments. I rolled off the program a month ago.
Vault: So where did you start out?
Wilkins: I started out as an operations engineer in Port Arthur, Texas. There, I was dealing with issues in the plant on a day-to-day basis -- solving problems that arose in the plant and implementing small capital projects. For example, I designed and implemented a control loop to regulate the concentration in a furnace feed line. I also monitored the performance of over 300 process safety valves in order to determine which ones were leaking into the flare header.
The Port Arthur site is a chemical plant. It produces ethelyne, propylene, and other chemical derivatives. It's the largest steam cracker in the world. A steam cracker takes long chains of hydrocarbons and heats them up, "cracking" the chains and forming double bonds.
Vault: Where did you go next?
Wilkins: My second rotation was at a smaller site, a manufacturing plant in Sparta, Tennessee in the upper Cumberland Mountains. It was a site that produced performance polymers or hard plastics. Every brand of hand tool, such as Black and Decker, DeWalt, and Bosch, uses plastics from the Sparta BASF site.
Sparta was a manufacturing site rather than a chemical plant. It was very different from the Port Arthur site. For example, there weren't as many engineers on-site in Sparta. As a PDP participant at that site, I got to experience a combination of process, operations, and product engineering. In a smaller site, you wear many hats, because there are not 10 to 12 engineers with all different job functions. There's just a handful of engineers and all share duties. As a result, I had a lot of responsibility and opportunity to do a lot of capital projects, day-to-day improvement projects, and also some design work. It was a good chance to do lots of different things within the same job.
Vault: So where are you now?
Wilkins: Geismar, Louisiana. It's a town close to Baton Rouge. I recently accepted a permanent position here, but it was also my third rotational assignment.
I picked this position because I really enjoyed the work I was doing during my assignment. When it was time to roll off of the program, I applied to an open position here.
It's a process engineering position, which is a bit different from operations and project engineering. It's more design work, working on projects that are a long time in the future, even a couple years off. I'm doing a lot of sizing and simulation work. It's a lot of what I like to call pencil and paper engineering. It's similar to the type of engineering you do in school.
Vault: What sort of products are you working on?
Wilkins: Geismar is our largest North American site, and is a very large chemical plant. It's almost what you would call seven or eight chemical plants in one. So at this site we make many chemicals -- we make specialty amines, polyalcohols, ethylene oxide, isocyanates, aniline, diols, surfactants, and a few others. As a PDP I was working mostly on projects in ethylene oxide and TDI, which is an isocyanate used for foams that go into products such as seat cushions.
Vault: Did you get to choose your rotations?
Wilkins: The first assignment was chosen for me when I signed up for the program. PDP participants are placed depending on business needs. Halfway through my first assignment, I was able to choose the second one. BASF has a database set up and there's a list of job openings for PDP participants only. I checked the database the other day and there were 50-60 openings all over the company.
You basically apply to whichever positions you are interested in, and it's a first-come, first serve basis. Assignments must be at different sites. The process begins three months before your rotation ends, and you usually go through a phone interview.
Vault: Was your relocation paid for?
Wilkins: Everything that is associated with the move is paid for, including a house-hunting trip.
Vault: Is there much communication among the different employees in the program?
Wilkins: We have teleconferences about once a month to discuss what each PDP participant is working on and maintain contact with all participants.
A lot of times, it's just more of keeping details straight, hearing about what other people are doing in the sites and their roles, and hearing about other assignments so you can make the decision about whether you want to rotate to that assignment.
Vault: Is there a formal mentor program set up?
Wilkins: With this program, at your first site you have a mentor that's assigned to you, basically to kind of guide you along. Usually it's somebody that's not in your department.
Vault: How often did you meet with your mentor?
Wilkins: Really as often as I wanted to. I knew where his office was, and we'd talk maybe about once every other week. We'd try to have lunch every two weeks.
Also, it's remarkable how many people you come across that graduated from the program. These former PDP participants can relate to where you're at; they've been in your shoes, and you can always ask them questions. It's good to have so many engineers around you that have gone through the same program.