Let’s Be Frank: You’ve Got to Know When to Hold ‘Em…

By Inspector Frank. August 31, 2023

You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away and know when to run

The other day I was listening to Don Schlitz’s song “The Gambler” as performed by the late Kenny Rogers. It’s a great song, by the way, but it got me thinking and then thinking some more. Basically, the song is about analyzing what is going on and making choices in your life. The obvious analogy is to the world of people’s day-to-day work, but I also started thinking about it in other ways as well.

I think that in everyone’s day-to-day work, the concept of this song can apply. If you weigh the good, the bad, and the potential future rewards of your job and they come up short, then maybe it is time to walk away and have no regrets.

Now this isn’t exactly a hot take, or potentially even very interesting. But as an add-on to this, we are seeing declining interest in the Western world in youth getting involved in a lot of technical and professional fields, including petrochemicals. Trades are in desperate need of people, and I finally see a narrative in North America that maybe we should start pushing kids into those routes and potentially look at increasing the apprenticeship models.

I discussed some of these concepts in my last article with the overall conclusion that we (as an industry) are catching a lot of bad press right now, and that isn’t making our industry look like a stellar career choice for a young person. There is also the problem that has existed since I was a kid in high school; being that the guidance counselors and other mentors trying to shepherd you on your way into becoming a useful member of society seldom seem to know much about a lot of the industrial science, engineering, and technical fields.

That in itself is an old problem that I have seen inroads on in the last few years (think of STEM and other programs meant to show kids potential career paths that are engineering/technical). However, the big push seems to be more in the computer realm. While computers and what they can do is obviously a field we need to keep exploring, we are still going to need energy and infrastructure, especially with the growing appetite for energy that a computer-driven world requires. Nobody is actually going to be happy with no power, roads, or places to live.

Basically, we need to look at why people are “walking away” from going into some of the fields around engineering, equipment integrity, etc.

I know I get a little circular sometimes; I am revisiting a common theme I bring up in these articles, and that is on attracting people, getting them educated and working, and keeping them interested and excited so that when they weigh their options, they don’t “fold ‘em” and opt-out. I do this because I want to see more young people get excited by this world we are in.

Where do we lose people, and what can we do about it?

As discussed above, I think we are, for the vast majority of our youth, doing a great disservice in terms of introducing them to the technical fields available and what the multitude of options can be. At various times and physical locales, I have seen this done well, but usually driven by a small group (or even an individual) rather than an actual long-term plan. My background is in materials/metallurgical engineering, and I have been a member of ASM (The Materials Information Society, formerly the American Society for Metals) for many years, including stints as an executive on various chapters. The reason I bring this up is that ASM puts a lot of effort and money into its educational arm, including trying to introduce the world of materials engineering to high school kids by developing a curriculum for use by high school science teachers to introduce some industrial engineering, science, and technology themes (and introduce them as potential careers).

While they are doing a good job, when it comes to “boots on the ground,” the achievements of the local chapters in helping promote this in local schools vary based on the people involved. It is a good attempt, as I mentioned above, but it is very dependent on the people involved (in the case of ASM also that the members are mostly volunteering time to promote and push these learning tools out).

It works, but beyond having good effects in local areas, we need to start looking at more “universal” methods of consistently getting the message out to young people looking on embarking into advanced education and then the workforce, that the fields in petrochemical production are varied, interesting and always full of technical challenges.

Now, the problem with looking for a more universal means to get engagement with students is that when you cover larger geographical areas, you involve more people and tend to get more bureaucracy. If any of you have sat on code committees, you know how what seems simple and obvious can turn into a nightmare when trying to get a consensus. I have heard the phrase “managing equipment integrity personnel is like herding cats” an awful lot in my life, and it does seem to be mostly true. We can be and are a quirky bunch who usually have passion, and/or obsessive compulsions, and/or odd personality traits. None of these necessarily help us play well with others or come to a consensus easily.

This is probably one of the reasons that, in general, the science and technology field does a poor job of promoting itself to people making career choices.

Well, I guess I am arguing myself back that local actions are the way to promote our fields. What do I mean? Get involved. Give back to the career that has given you employment, pay, and, hopefully, a little bit of joy here and there. Maybe you already have or do?

What can you do as an individual to help promote our industry and get children interested before they start making post-secondary educational and career choices? Lots, and some are very easy (and some can count for “continuing education” or “promoting the industry” points to use on recertifications and professional designation requirements).

Here are a few examples:

  1. Look for professional/educational organizations in your area that are trying to promote your field. Join up and assist as much or as little as you can.
  2. Go to your kid’s school career day and do a presentation.
  3. Talk to your kids, or friends’ kids about what you do.
  4. Write an article for a local paper or for use in your local school.
  5. Take a look if anyone in your area is assisting high school science teachers teach science in a way that also ties in with actual career paths or fields of employment.

I would love to hear back from anyone who has been involved in promoting their field and how they went about it, and what the outcomes were. I am always impressed at the ingenuity of driven or passionate people.

I have also found putting efforts into this type of outreach to be very rewarding. Taking the time to mentor or develop mentoring tools has always brought me joy and, at various times, kept me from folding my hand and walking away from this career I find myself in.

Now do not take this as me preaching. I don’t think you all need to rush out and put some time in, or the collective “we” will be disappointed. I also realize that people have lives and that, often, we are so busy between the professional and the personal that there is no time or energy to take on additional projects. But if you find yourself with some time on your hands or find yourself trying to find young people with a certain degree, diploma, or certificate and you can’t; or if you find yourself getting jaded with your career choice, then maybe it is a great time to get involved. The act of putting the spark into others also tends to put the spark back into you.

Be the gambler that Kenny ran into on that train bound for nowhere and give out some advice (maybe don’t demand payment in whiskey though).

As a final aside, I mentioned at the start that the song triggered a bunch of thoughts. The first one that occurred to me was applying the concept of the song to the actual equipment we help build, run, maintain, repair, and replace in order to keep things safe and sound. It’s no different than talking about people making choices – the same choices have to be made with the known data, history, service conditions, upset conditions, etc., for the equipment we monitor. Think about it.

“Every gambler knows that the secret to survivin'
Is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep
'Cause every hand's a winner and every hand's a loser
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep”

— Don Schlitz, “The Gambler”

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