• By The Straits Times
  • Posted 2 years ago
  • Reading Time : a few minutes

As a contact engineer in the petrochemical industry, Ms Sung Peir Fen has learned to deal confidently with the different issues that crop up in her job.

By Wong Sher Maine

In school, Ms Sung Peir Fen loved mathematics and sciences. Her decision to translate that into an engineering profession has resulted in an exciting and dynamic career with the world’s largest oil and gas company, ExxonMobil.

The 31-year-old contact engineer, currently with ExxonMobil Chemical Operations, has worked with people all over the world, led diverse teams of men and women and triumphed over complex work challenges.

The Nanyang Girls’ High and Hwa Chong Junior College alumnus recalled her decision to go into engineering: “Engineering is the application of both mathematics and science. I enjoy the structural and analytical processes in tackling problems.”

She studied materials engineering at the Nanyang Technological University and then pursued a Master of Science in Biochemical Engineering from the Singapore-MIT Alliance programme at the National University of Singapore.

While she could have gone into academia, she decided to join the engineering industry and it was at ExxonMobil that she hit her stride.

The company, which employs over 83,000 people worldwide of which over 3,000 are in Singapore, offered Ms Sung an opportunity to grow in the profession.

Starting out as a project engineer in early 2007, her role then was “to translate a concept on paper into something that is real”.

Three years later, she became a contact engineer to “support and optimize plant operations, troubleshoot process issues, optimize plant processes and work to expand plant facilities as needed”.

Now based at the Singapore Chemical Plant on Jurong Island, Ms Sung starts off a typical day in her office by reading the data to get a feel of plant operations.

Then she puts on a protective full-body blue suit, ear plugs, safety spectacles, helmet, safety boots and zips around the giant chemical plant on a bicycle to check the facilities.

“My job is not desk-bound. In a single morning, I can go from having discussions in the office to doing checks in the fields with Operations. This lack of routine keeps my energy level high through the day,” says Ms Sung.

She has also been given many opportunities to solve technical problems.

In one instance, she was part of a team that transported a 10-storey high component weighing 50 tonnes from the supplier and put it in place in one of ExxonMobil’s chemical plants without affecting the ongoing production.

The planning team spent two months working out every aspect of the operation, from bringing in the component at night on a special multi-wheeled vehicle and arranging for police escorts to co-ordinating every action of the two cranes putting the component into place.

“We even had to calculate the exact centre of gravity of the component,” recalls Ms Sung.

“While it was being put in place, we took videos and photos.”

The anecdote is one of the many in Ms Sung’s job history, which debunks some myths about the engineering profession.

For one, engineers do not work in isolation. She works with different people and teams every day from countries such as United Kingdom, Italy and the United States. Communicating is a big part of her job.

“The complexity of the units is such that not one person can know everything. So, communication is necessary to ensure flawless operations,” she says.

Another myth is that engineers are boring and uncreative.

“I have seen so many creative, elegant and simple solutions from engineers,” says Ms Sung.

At ExxonMobil, these could be new technology that allows the company to accurately drill a well one miles deep and six miles horizontally — a new world record — or energy-saving tyres that stay inflated for a longer period of time.

Engineers at ExxonMobil are also given the opportunity to learn other jobs, which Ms Sung appreciates.

She says: “Engineers in Singapore can opt to work in manufacturing or operations, at the refinery or chemical plant, or they may also choose to go into the commercial or planning aspects of the business. There are also opportunities to work overseas, or with global teams.”

Apart from the professional satisfaction, being an engineer has also shaped her personal life and outlook.

At home, because of ExxonMobil’s focus on safety, Ms Sung has a heightened sense of safety when she carries out DIY jobs such as those that involve electricity, or when walking on slippery floors or just carrying bulky items.

“Being an engineer has helped me to finetune my analytical thinking. I can understand a situation, distil the most important aspects of it and make a decision based on the root cause of the situation,” she says.

Over the years, Ms Sung has learned to structure her ideas and opinions better so that she can communicate clearly with other people.

“Engineering has also helped me to become a better listener, not just in the office but in a personal, social environment.”

Lots of opportunities for growth

Singapore’s energy and chemical industry contributed $57 billion of the nation’s manufacturing output in 2009. This is 28 percent of Singapore’s total manufacturing output, making the republic one of the world’s leading energy and chemical hubs.

Mr Derk Hartgerink, board member of the Singapore Chemical Industry Council (SCIC) and co-chair of the Chemical Industry Manpower Advisory Committee (CHIMAC), says: “There are unprecedented opportunities in the chemical industry in Singapore today because it is growing quickly. Many new units and plants are being built on Jurong Island, creating interesting jobs for fresh graduates as well as those with experience.

“Because the industry is growing rapidly, there are many opportunities for personal development and interesting careers, as specialist engineers, general engineers or as supervisors and managers in the different chemical companies in Singapore.”

Jurong Island is the centerpiece of the energy and chemical industry and it is home to about 100 petroleum, petrochemical and specialty chemicals companies.

One of these is ExxonMobil, which runs a petrochemical complex in Singapore. It employs about 900 employees and 1,000 contractors who work at the Singapore Chemical Plant and a second petrochemical project.

Giving an overview of what young engineers can expect in the industry, Mr Hartgerink, who is also the Singapore Chemical Plant manufacturing director, says: “In ExxonMobil, personal growth and development are encouraged. That growth can be along a supervisory or management line, like I have followed, or as a specialist. Then, employees can also choose to work in the manufacturing division, or in a sales or commercial role. We groom most of our leaders and specialists from within the company, so creating optimal opportunity for personal growth is a necessity for ExxonMobil.”

(This article was originally published in The Straits Times)