Cheridan Sanders learns about life on the Rig, as she chats with Alison Carey about faith, work-life balance and what it's like living 120 miles out to sea.
When you imagine reaching out to the peripheries, setting up shop in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico isn’t exactly what comes to most of our minds.
But one thing I have found you can always count on, no matter how far or inaccessible a human community may be, Christ always finds a way to reach them.
And so here enters Alison, a Deepwater Process Control and Automation Engineer, who is no stranger to adventure as she lives and witnesses in one of the toughest working environments on the planet.
Find out what it takes to live at sea and how opportunities to witness are found even in the most unlikely of places.
How did you come to work on an oil rig? I suppose it's not something you wake up one day and say you're going to do? Or is it?
I am a process control engineer (my degree was chemical engineering) and I am based out of the Covington Louisiana (LA) office, but spend around 60 days offshore per year. My main workplace is the office but I am an operation support engineer which requires me to make “field visits” (to our outlying deepwater platforms- some are as far as 120 miles off the coast of LA). Before moving to LA, I worked in the gas plants and oil fields in West Texas and New Mexico. Before that, I was an operations process engineer at a refinery in Philadelphia.
What is your day to day like?
When I am in the office, I work on control systems, monitoring the oil/gas/water separation process via our automation and computers. I interface with the operators daily asking them to make adjustments and finding ways to run the process smoother. I am focused on what we can “topsides” which means that my work boundary starts once the oil arrives at the platform (I am not involved in drilling or production) and ends when our products reach their respective pipelines (to the sales point). When I am offshore, I spend my time working in the control room (the most common visual for a control room would be NASA’s Mission Control Center where one can see all the temperatures, pressures, flow rate, etc. of the fluids moving through our pumps, separators, compressors, treaters, heaters, etc.). I make adjustments to run the process smoother, so we can increase our throughput in a safe and reliable manner.
What's the biggest challenge that you've encountered so far? What was the role of your faith in that experience?
Work/ life balance can be very stressful at times with my job. I think this is true with any career. Do we let our career become our God? When I first started working, especially at a union refinery in the Northeast, I dealt with a lot of hostility. I was severely outnumbered as a female there and struggled with gaining/earning respect. This is not a problem in the Gulf due to (in my opinion) the culture of the people I interact with and also due to some maturity and personal development on my behalf.
Is there anything that surprised you when you started working out in the middle of the Gulf?
I have a great respect for the people who work a 14 day on / 14 day off schedule. They sacrifice so much to provide for their families. This puts great strain on relationships and lifestyles. They do hold Bible Studies and prayer sessions offshore on Sunday nights at many locations, giving the employees a sense of community even though they cannot be with their families. There is a lot of risk with the work we do offshore. In many cases, it can become a life or death situation. People take care of one another, they look out for one another’s safety and well-being. There is a sense of brotherhood that engulfs you when you step off the helicopter and onto the platform. There are so many offshore coworkers who I know would do anything for me- this is the definition of a true Christ-like person. There is an overwhelming sense of ownership and pride that one can sense in this environment from most of the crew.
What are the people like that you work with? How would you describe the environment on the rig?
When you are in the offshore environment, there is a significant pull to get along. At the end of the day, you do not leave work. You have to live with your coworkers so this creates a different environment. Sure there are people who do not get along, but it’s less common than in the office environment. I am also one of the few if not the only female out there. Sometimes this can be awkward, as no one likes to be outnumbered, but once people get to know me, they treat me as an equal or sometimes better. Although my job is not vocational (like a doctor, teacher, etc.) I still see my purpose is to help others in any way. It can be difficult to live offshore for long periods of time because it is so isolated. I keep myself busy and try to make the best out of it. As far as what are the people like? They are normal people. They love their families. They take pride in the work they do which provides energy and a way of life to others.
You’ve recently graduated with a Masters of Pastoral Studies from Loyola, what did you take away from that experience? Has your worldview changed at all?
Alison Carey, a process control engineer, is based out of the Covington, Louisiana office, but spends around 60 days offshore per year.
I graduated with my Masters of Pastoral Studies
last year from Loyola. It allowed me an opportunity to grow my faith on an intellectual basis. I was using this for working with the RCIA program at my local parish. The program definitely changed my worldview. I was introduced to a new network of people who carried the same concern about how our careers and faith intersected. Spending the time at Loyola allowed me to grow in empathy for others, especially those I work with. Not everyone is viewing life from the same vantage point, and even when talking to other Catholics about their work and faith, the viewpoints were not the same. This realization changed my worldview in that I need to have more patience with others and need to come to them at their own starting point. Jesus approached his disciples as they were out fishing, doing their jobs. This is where Jesus meets me as well.
Something I read recently that describes a little more on the Catholic perspective of the workplace:
Author Chris Lowney wrote a very engaging article about the newly canonized St. Peter Faber. The focus of the article is on the impactful life of St. Faber and the business consideration of his work and teachings
Here is a one paragraph excerpt -
But Faber implicitly challenges businesspeople that their talents are only being used well when they maintain a proper perspective on life. Business and money-making are not the highest ends: "If there were not such a harvest of souls to reaped," Faber writes. Our destiny lies beyond this world, and we're here for purposes beyond what we can sell, trade, build, buy, flaunt or own during this short earthly sojourn. That includes, if we are businesspeople, remaining aware that our every business decision impacts, for better or ill, the lives of employees, customers, shareholders and communities.
How do you give witness to the faith in your day to day encounters?
One of the focus areas for my studies is the fact that the faith needs to be lived out. A lot of people justify their dedication by being immersed in ministry. However, practically speaking, we spend most of our time at our jobs. I recall being in high school and our religious teacher telling us we did not have to be sisters or nuns to be holy. We can make any job holy as long as we keep our focus on God, and remember as St. Paul challenges us, that we are always serving God regardless of the task. Keeping this at the forefront of my mind is a daily challenge but one that I am called to do. In an environment as fickle as the energy business, one must be ready for constant change and for a dog-eat-dog world that any for-profit corporation can become by means of their inherent structure. In other words, we come to work to make money, not for social betterment or for a deeper cause.
There are always those among us who are poorer in something. For example, one “ministry” in my job is mentoring younger engineers. It’s a true labor of love to take the time required to prepare them for his or her career. I am mentoring one young lady right now who I took under my wing when I saw she was struggling with some of the same situations I had been through. This empathy provides me a way to mimic Christ in the work place. The poor will always be with us, Jesus prophesized. The poor can be anyone in need- someone who does not have the same amount of knowledge or confidence and needs a little help.
There is also a cliché about engineers and operators and how the two are oil and water. Historically there exists much animosity between these two. As you can imagine, a bad relationship between an engineer and operator can create a daunting work environment when trying to convince a control room operator to make a change when he has been operating that system just fine for 20 years. It takes some finesse to do this successfully- something I learned from a few good mentors and bosses by watching them interact and ask questions with respect and listen to the offshore personnel. This also becomes a way to witness my faith- you will know what I believe by how I treat others. This is my goal. Sometimes I struggle with personality conflicts and with egos and all the messiness that exists when many people are required to meet a common goal. It is how we handle and conduct our business that shows what we truly believe.
Power of authority and position can be resorted to too often in this environment. I would rather people do what I ask because they respect my knowledge and skills rather than doing it because I said so. In order to reach this level with others, significant effort is required to know and honor them as individuals and see how we can work in unity to reach a goal that is beneficial to both.
The Producer Diaries
, a Producer at Salt and Light Television, reflects on her experiences as she travels the world telling Catholic’s stories.