CROWNPOINT, NM – In June 2015 Navajo Technical University was approved by the Higher Learning Commission to begin offering an Associate of Applied Science degree in Chemical Engineering Technology to fill a regional need for workers in industrial and manufacturing plants; however, reaction to the new degree has been slow.
Currently, only two students are enrolled in the Chemical Engineering Technology program in spite of being located in a region rich in oil and gas fields. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics there are roughly 66,500 jobs in the Chemical Engineering Technology field, which is the primary reason NTU had developed the program.
“There’s lot of places to find employment in the region, including Albuquerque, the Four Corners area, Farmington and Gallup,” stated Chemical Engineering Technology instructor Dr. Gholam Ehteshami, citing companies like Western Refinery, Navajo Oil and Gas Company, and Arizona Public Service Company. “If you become a chemical technician you have a big chance to find a job in this area.”
There are two types of chemical engineering technicians that NTU hopes to produce, laboratory and process technicians. Laboratory technicians operate standard laboratory equipment and conduct laboratory procedures ranging from routine process control to complex research projects, while process technicians perform chemical tests and experiments for quality, performance, or composition. The role of a chemical engineering technician has changed drastically over the years where technicians now hold responsibilities that were once designated to engineers.
“In the past, most chemical technicians were trained on the job,” explained Dr. Ehteshami, who serves as the chair of NTU’s School of Engineering, Mathematics, and Technology after working the past twelve years at Arizona State University. “Today, industry demands a solid foundation in applied basic chemistry and math, plus experience using various kinds of standard lab ware. Computer knowledge and oral and written communication skills are also required.”
Chemical engineering technicians have many duties, but their main focus is running production units and working on industrial processes designed to convert raw material into petroleum products. As part of this duty they help design operations, implement process controls, and address corrosion concerns, both in the field and in large plants. Technicians also research products and technologies as well as environmental and reclamation techniques, which according to Dr. Ehteshami, provides a good opportunity to students given the high number of abandoned mine sites on and around the Navajo Nation.
“It’s interesting. I never knew that an associate degree would be so valuable,” stated Casamero Lake, NM resident Jonathan Largo, who is one of the two students currently enrolled in the program. “In class we did a quick Google search for jobs available and instantly thousands of jobs came up making anywhere from $35-60,000 a year.”
Largo had graduated last year from NTU with a degree in Industrial Engineering, but because Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) standards require an additional two higher level mathematics courses, Largo returned to NTU to meet the requirement. While doing so he figured it would be a good opportunity to learn more and he enrolled in the Chemical Engineering Technology program.
“It’s a lot like Industrial Engineering in that it all starts with the employees in making sure everything is done correctly,” stated Largo reflecting on each program. “If something small isn’t correct, it will have a ripple affect.”
NTU is hoping NTU’s Chemical Engineering Technology program will have a ripple affect toward improving the economic landscape of the Navajo Nation. In the coming months Dr. Ehteshami will be reaching out to area high schools in spreading the word about the program as well as industry professionals wanting to advance their position with a degree.