Outfitted in hard hats, ear plugs and safety glasses, 29 high school students make their way into the control room of BASF’s acetylene plant in Geismar, Louisiana. They gather in front of a couple dozen computer monitors, each of which keeps track of the massive units outside that produce acetylene, a building block chemical used extensively throughout the facility and a key component in making household items. Three operators sit behind the monitors, keeping tabs on all sorts of data related to production, including temperature, air pressure and vapor flow. If something goes wrong in one of the units, they’re the first to detect it and get it corrected.
Clad in matching bright blue T-shits, the students file into the control room where they’re welcomed by BASF technology engineer Nikita Petrosyan.
It’s not every day members of the public are allowed behind the scenes like this. In fact, without special permission, it’s impossible.
But these students are part of a special group called the BASF Tech Academy—selected Ascension Parish teens who have shown an interest in pursuing a technical education.
As Petrosyan explains what happens here in the control room, the students listen attentively and scribble notes. Some ask questions about what goes on in the control room during hurricanes, and what chemical processes take place during production.
“This is a great opportunity for these students, and I’m always impressed with their level of engagement,” says Blythe Bellows Lamonica, BASF communications manager and Tech Academy coordinator. “We want to give them a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to work in a technical field in Louisiana.”
A large percentage of good-paying jobs in Louisiana are achievable with a technical education. Manufacturing facilities throughout the state and region depend heavily on positions like process technicians, welders, electricians and operators, and the BASF Tech Academy, which took place in June this year, provides a window into these jobs in action. Co-sponsored by BASF and River Parishes Community College, the academy is open to juniors and seniors who attend one of the four public high schools in Ascension Parish (East Ascension High, Dutchtown High, St. Amant High and Donaldsonville High).
Graduates of the program are also eligible to apply for one of five $1,000 scholarships from BASF that can be used at RPCC and are good for three years.
“So much of the focus today is on four-year colleges, but we forget there are tons of opportunities out there for young people to earn a technical degree and get a job that offers great pay and benefits and mobility,” says Lamonica. “These are important jobs that require hard work and our students are getting to see exactly what they’re like.”
MAKING THE CONNECTION
Over the course of five days, the academy takes students on a fast-moving tour of some of the region’s most significant manufacturers.
“It’s been so great, and I was interested in everything we learned,” says St. Amant High junior Raegan Nguyen, 16. “One of my favorite parts was trying welding.”
Smiling, Nguyen adds, “Apparently, I was pretty good at it.”
Nguyen participates in the Early College Option established between Ascension Parish Schools and RPCC. She takes courses at RPCC during the school year and has already earned multiple college credits.
It’s commonplace in Louisiana to know people who work for industry since this sector is one of the state’s biggest employers. But until these students toured companies like ExxonMobil, BASF and Coca-Cola, they didn’t have a full understanding of what these jobs entailed.
“My dad works for a plant, and I was really curious what it was like,” says Dutchtown High School junior Zachary Wilson, 16. “I’ve learned a lot this week.”
Each stop on the tour allowed the students to learn more about how manufacturing works, from the safety measures taken to the distribution path of products. They also learned about the degrees required to obtain jobs in this sector.
“Our goal is to help the students make the connection between the jobs they’re interested in and the education they need to obtain those jobs,” says Lamonica. “Jobs like operators are the backbone of our facilities, and as people retire, we all want to see a new pipeline of talent enter those positions.”
INTO THE PLANTS
Day one of the Tech Academy was spent at RPCC, where the students learned about the college’s various curriculum programs. They toured classrooms and labs and learned about the importance of soft skills, including interpersonal communications. The students also got to know some of the school’s instructors and student assistants, a handful of whom traveled with the group throughout the week.
On Tuesday, the academy ventured out for its first field trip—a stop at the Baton Rouge Coca-Cola Bottling Co., which produces and distributes more than 750 different beverages, including Coca-Cola, Fanta, Dasani and Powerade.
“It was great for them to see the seamlessness of the process,” says Lamonica, “and how many different jobs are required in a facility like this.”
That afternoon, the academy students stopped at Emerson Climate Technologies, a major producer of heating and air products, where they learned about jobs available throughout the HVAC field.
On Wednesday, the students saw welding in action at Smith Tank and Steel Inc., a Gonzales-based company that builds high-quality steel tanks. Later that day, they ventured across the Mississippi River to Port Allen to the ExxonMobil Aviation Lubricants plant, which relies on several different technical jobs to make jet fuel.
Thursday brought a popular outing. The group headed to NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Mississippi, for a tour of America’s premier rocket engine test complex, where engines for all manned Apollo and space shuttle flights have been tested.
“It was really a great tour,” says Matthew Sianarta, 21, an RPCC student assistant who mingled with the high school students all week. “It really allowed you to see what goes into testing engines.”
The Tech Academy students were reminded that they don’t have to be aerospace engineers or astronauts to work for NASA. Technical jobs, like welders, electricians, instrumentation personnel and others are essential to the operations of facilities like Stennis.
Finally, on Friday, the academy showcased different technical positions on staff at BASF’s expansive Geismar site, one of the global company’s largest facilities.
“It’s really hard to decide what I would go into because it’s all so interesting,” says Nguyen. “But I know it will be in a field like this.”
—Maggie Heyn Richardson