In today’s interview I’m introducing you to my former colleague, Karen. She’s currently a Water Management Supervisor for Permian basin, but she has worked many roles over the years, including most recently working as Staff Completions Engineer before moving to her new role.
I met and worked with Karen when we were both new to the oil and gas (O&G) industry when it was booming in the mid 2000’s. Although Karen was also new to O&G, she wasn’t new to engineering. She had worked as an engineer in other industries, a teacher, and a stay-at-home mom before coming to O&G. Karen started in O&G a year before I did so I often went to her for questions and advice because I was new to engineering and the O&G industry.
She always made me feel comfortable and welcome in asking questions and was open and easy to talk to as a friend as well. Which explains why I often thought of her as an unofficial mentor, because she encompassed everything I value in a mentor.
In our interview below Karen tells about her unconventional career path and the challenges and advantages she has faced along the way. I hope you enjoy and are inspired by her story!
Engineering Emily (EE): How and when did you decide to become an engineer?
Karen Work (KW): I decided when I was a sophomore in High School that I wanted to be an engineer. My dad and uncle were engineers and my brother had decided to go into engineering so I followed their footsteps. I also loved math, science and problem solving so felt I would do well as an engineer.
EE: What was your college major?
KW: I graduated with a BS in Industrial Engineering. I attended the Petroleum Super School at the Colorado School of Mines to take a crash course in Petroleum Engineering in 2006.
EE: What was your university experience like as an engineering student?
KW: I loved Texas Tech University!! I worked most of the time through college and took anywhere from 15-20 hrs a semester. I enjoyed setting my own schedule and playing intramural sports including basketball, softball and flag football.
My first semester there was tough since I had attended a very small HS and then a small Jr College prior to transferring to Tech. The size of some of the classes amazed me. The engineering classes were smaller though, and were challenging but fun.
EE: Did you do any engineering internships during college?
KW: I did have engineering internships during college but they were very different from what students have available to them today. I worked as a welder’s helper, roustabout, ran a fork lift in a pipe yard, shop clock repair person (back when the wells were run by clocks), and then an actual internship the summer before my senior year where I did an efficiency analysis on multi-skilled operators (called pumpers back then).
EE: How did you find/get hired for your first engineering job?
KW: I graduated in 1983 and had several interviews on campus but ended up taking a job with the company that I did all my internships with…fairly easy since I had worked several summers with them. I was offered a job the end of the summer internship the year before I graduated.
I still went ahead and interviewed on campus for the experience and also to see what other jobs where available to me in the market. Unfortunately, right before I graduated the oil and gas market crashed so my offer was rescinded. I ended up taking a position with the company I had been working for while I was in college in a manufacturing role.
EE: What industry do you currently work in?
KW: I currently work in oil and gas (O&G) for an independent company. My job involves making sure drilling and completions activities have water so that oil and gas can be produced. Without water to drill and fracture stimulate the wells, oil and gas would stay in the ground so it is a critical part of the industry. Controlling costs is also critical and since I work in a drought ridden area, getting water economically can be difficult.
EE: What has been your career path from college graduation up to today?
KW: I didn’t have a traditional path at all. I worked for a couple of years out of college in manufacturing. I started having the first of my three children in 1984 and wanted to stay home with them. There weren’t very many options to keep my skills current during that time so ended up staying home for 11 years.
I worked many odd jobs so that I could make money and still stay home with my kids, i.e. in-home child care, house cleaning etc. After those 11 years I thought that a teaching degree would allow me to get back into the work force and still have similar hours to my children, so I was alternatively certified to teach secondary math and taught 8th grade math for a couple of years.
My husband ended up getting transferred from Houston to Lubbock and I was offered three jobs in the teaching field. I had been out of my engineering for 13 years but decided I desperately wanted to get back into that line of work so turned them all down and started looking for an engineering job.
I was able to get my foot into the door of a manufacturing facility in Lubbock that was more like a summer internship. It wasn’t a full-time job but I worked it for 6 months and was able to get my computer software skills up to current times. They ended up offering me a job, but it was hardly enough money for the 45 hours they wanted me to work. I still wanted to spend more time with my kids, so I turned down the job.
I ended up getting a position in telecom working for a small consulting firm through a church bunco party (another interesting story we won’t tell here). The pay was good and full-time was working 36 hours, so I had benefits and enough time after work to still spend a lot of time with my children. A couple of months later, I went through a divorce and ended up having to be the bread-winner for my kids.
I started working more hours for more pay and worked for that company for 7 years. My older two children graduated from High School and my youngest was a junior in High School when I was ready to make a switch in my career with the downturn that had hit the telecom industry from 2000 to 2006. My brother had been begging me to come to Farmington, NM to work in the O&G industry, so I sent a resume and was hired a few months later starting in June 2006. I was sent to Golden, CO for a crash course in Petroleum Engineering.
So in my mid-40s, I changed careers, and I am where I am today because of it. It was the best decision I ever made and have loved every bit of the last 12 years.
EE: Have you travelled for work, and if so how often and to where?
KW: I have traveled probably 10% of the time that I worked in the office. I have been to Denver CO, Houston TX, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, OK, Lubbock TX (for recruiting), Dickinson, Williston and Watford City ND, Farmington and Santa Fe, NM, plus some I’m sure I’ve missed. I worked a field rotation as a completion supervisor, which involved traveling to ND every 2 or 3 weeks to work and then 2 or 3 weeks home for a year and a half during the down turn in 2015 and 2016. I spent two winters working in the field and I can tell you it sure gets cold (-45 wind chill factor at times).
EE: Have you had to move for work?
KW: Once I was back in O&G in 2006, I’ve lived in Farmington, NM for 5 years, Midland, TX for 2 years, Houston, TX for 5 years and now live in Carlsbad, NM. I hope this is the last move for a while, but I say that every time. I will always go where the work is.
EE: What has been your best experience working as an engineer?
KW: I’ve had so many but I’d say my favorite time was in ND as a field supervisor. I loved the work, the people who I worked with and the environment. The second favorite experience was mentoring new engineers. I stay in touch with many of them and really enjoy seeing how they’ve grown in their careers and life.
EE: What has been your most challenging experience working as an engineer?
KW: Most challenging is my current role as Water Management Supervisor. I came into the job with no handovers, no processes, no past information of the area so have had to start from scratch on developing processes and information. Fortunately, I was able to find some of the folks that worked the position in 2015 and have found some past documents and information about the job and area. My goal is to hand over the position to the next person with well documented processes in place so it is an easier transition for them.
EE: Do you feel women are treated equally to men in engineering?
KW: Unfortunately, I don’t feel we are treated equally. It is still very much a man’s world and tough for a woman, especially in the field. There are some workers who still see that it isn’t a place for a woman (although there are getting to be fewer of those over the past 30 years). I recently read an article that says men still make more than women in equal roles. I’m hoping over the next few years, that changes.
EE: How do you balance career and home life?
KW: That is a very challenging thing to do. Right now, I’m spending too much time working but I am hoping that the time put in now will create more off hours when the job is better organized. When I was in the office, I realized you just have to prioritize the work, delegate when you can and then remember that the work will still be there tomorrow. That realization is very important to being a happy and well-balanced person. Life is too short and precious to spend all your time working!
EE: What do you consider the challenges and advantages of being a working mom?
KW: Challenges are doing well at work and then being there for your kids. When I was a single mom, I worked three jobs to provide for them and was mom and dad to them. I always thank God that He blessed me with lots of energy to be able to be a single mom for those 8-9 years. Of course, you rely on family and friends and my kids were great to pitch in and help. They did chores, worked for gas money, and helped each other by taking other siblings places when they could drive, etc.
Advantages are that when I stayed at home, I did everything for my kids. When I returned to work, it made me be more organized and also made me realize that my kids needed responsibilities as well. Now they are all great at budgeting and working hard for what they have. I gained more self-confidence as a career person and take great pride in my accomplishments. Plus, helping my company be successful is great too!
EE: If you are no longer working as an engineer, why did you leave engineering? And do you plan to ever return to engineering in the future?
KW: I plan to work as an engineer in O&G until I retire….and even then, I might find part-time work.
EE: What advice do you have for girls interested becoming an engineer?
KW: Do well in school and when you get your first job, find a person that can be a mentor for you and help guide you to meet your goals. Also, volunteer to help others at work. A team player will help you go far in your career.
EE: What advice do you have for working moms?
KW: Remember to take care of yourself and your family. I’ve always believed in God first, family second and then work and friends. Your children will grow up so fast and then be gone. I always remember that someone told me once that a person that was dying never said they wish they’d spent more time at work, but that they wished they had more time with family. Work hard while you are at work, but then go home and enjoy your family time. After all, they are the reason we do what we do!
EE: Would you still become an engineer if you could do it all over again?
KW: I would. I think back to all the things I’ve done in my life and realize that it all helped me to be the best person for doing what I do now! I’m also happy to see better options for women who want to focus on their kids more and keep their engineering skills sharp for when they return to work full-time. Kudos to companies that provide these options!
EE: Any other information or stories you’d like to share?
KW: I did remarry a wonderful man in 2008 (we just celebrated our 10th anniversary) and now have five children and 12 grandchildren who are the lights in my life! I also have two mini Aussies, Gilbert and Gabby, whom are our very spoiled children now. I thank God for each day that I can impact someone positively so hope that my story can encourage someone else!
Karen sure is an amazing woman! The span of her working career has covered several industries in engineering and also different careers including stay-at-home mom and teacher. It is inspiring to see that she has done so much and still come back to engineering and loving her work.
Once when I was upset about deciding to be a stay-at-home mom someone told me, “Nothing is permanent. If you no longer want to be a stay-at-home mom you can go back to work. If you don’t like your job you can find a different one.” Karen gives me confidence in my decision, because she is proof that the advice I received is true. You can have many careers throughout your life.
Another thing from Karen’s interview that stuck with me is when she talked about the advantages of being a working mom she said, “when I stayed at home, I did everything for my kids. When I returned to work, it made me be more organized and also made me realize that my kids needed responsibilities as well. Now they are all great at budgeting and working hard for what they have.” This really resonated with me as being true. I think it does help the kids to have to be more self-sufficient when mom isn’t always around to do everything for them.
I hope you enjoyed reading Karen’s story today as much as I did. If you’ve been inspired by her and would also like to share your story on the blog, please contact me.
Comment below if you have any questions or messages for Karen and myself. 🙂