Matthew Wilson's journey to become an instrumentation technician

  • November 30, 2017
  • Research Triangle Park, North Carolina

The value of setting goals, perseverance, mentorship and ISA membership

Note: This article was assembled by Richard Tunstall, an ISA Senior Member and Technical Studies Division Chair at Lee College, a community college in Baytown, Texas. It follows the development and journey of Matthew Wilson, one of Tunstall's former students, who is now working as an instrumentation technician at the Holly Frontier Refinery in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tunstall says the article, written from Wilson's perspective, is based directly on Wilson's own story and words. Tunstall says he hopes it will serve as an example to other young people, showing them that successful, rewarding careers in automation are attainable and not just for those with four-year college degrees.

You can go from a $10 an hour job to one with a $100,000 a year earning potential. It is not only possible, it's attainable! Let me explain. Come listen to a story about a man named Matt, a young Oklahoman trying to keep his family fed.

Three years ago I was in a dead-end job making $10 an hour. Taking care of my family was difficult.  Please don't misunderstand, I was grateful to have a job. I'm going to tell you my story, hoping someday somebody will read it and know, you can change your life's story. You absolutely can! I did, and you can, too. There are a few key elements: a mentor, a goal, some sacrifice, an education, an occupational identity. That last one is obtained by not only joining a professional society, but being an active volunteer. For Instrumentation workers worldwide, it's the International Society of Automation (ISA)

Because my work was in plants, I noticed the various workers and what their work was like. For a guy like me, one of the jobs appealed more than the others: instrumentation technician! I imagined myself working as a tech and wanted to make that my reality. Now, I wondered, how can I get started? The answer lied with Randy Cole!

Mr. Cole a supervisor in the oil and gas industry and someone I have great respect for. I consider Randy my mentor. I talked with him on several occasions about my future and wanting to be a tech. You know how it is when you hear someone you trust give you advice that seems to be crazy? I think we all have had that experience. Well, as soon as Mr. Cole could tell I was really serious about a career change to become a tech, he about knocked me over with his advice for a next step. He said pack up and head to Baytown, Texas and enroll in the Instrumentation Program at Lee College. What??? I had to think for a while so I could come to grips with this. I was looking for trustworthy advice, but Mr. Cole tells me to move to Baytown! But this is Mr. Cole. Even if he knows I can't swim and tells me to jump in the watering hole, I will do it and I will swim, not sink. Now I'm going to tell you about my adventure in blind faith.

Listen, Lee College is a 10-hour drive from my home in a small town in Oklahoma.  I'm not sure if you get a feel for what I'm saying when I say "small town" in Oklahoma, but we're talking country. I had never lived this great of a distance from my family. When I was growing up, an amazing adventure was going to one of the few big cities around. It was a big decision to leave my home. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced this was going to happen. In Oklahoma we don't mind taking a challenge. In fact, if you know Oklahoma, you know that's how Oklahoma got started. Many Americans uprooted and came here and made it their home. That's not my personal heritage. I am Cherokee. I am a member of the Cherokee Nation. But hey, I'm an American, too, so surely I can uproot, get an education, then head back home.

Being such a big decision, of course it was family council time. I talked this over with my wife. I explained my plans to my parents. In both cases, not only did my family support my decision to go, they encouraged me. Have you ever watched the Beverly Hillbillies? Well we aren't hillbillies, we are Okies. And we didn't move to Beverly Hills, but I loaded up the truck and I moved my family to Dayton, Texas, a country town outside of Houston.  Why Dayton? While Lee College is actually located in Baytown, we found a mobile home to rent in Dayton, which is only about 20 miles from Lee College. We had a great landlord. We had a place to stay. I felt blessed. You know what? I gotta tell you the heat, humidity, weather, and driving were all experiences we won't forget any time soon. We definitely were no longer in Oklahoma, that's for sure!

My next steps were, of course, finding employment and getting myself enrolled. I found a day job, then I went to campus. I was thrilled to learn all the classes in Instrumentation at Lee College are offered at night and sequenced so you can step through the program by enrolling every semester, Fall, Spring, and Summer. Yes! I planned out the courses I would need with the help of the friendly counselors at Lee College. I applied for admission, then enrolled and began attending Lee College.  My plan was to work days, go to school at night, study when I could, be a loving husband, be a good dad, and sleep when I could. Whoa! Well, okay, so you already know there were times when I would get tired and give a fleeting thought to quitting. But I didn't. I was raised to believe a man sacrifices for his family and by golly I would! I just reminded myself that this was a season and it would end eventually.

Lee College has some really awesome professors. One in particular, Mr. Tunstall, always encouraged and directed me as he has so many of his students. If you have a question, he is always there to answer it and explain the answer to you. He would stay after class if necessary to ensure I understood. When I met him, I noticed he had hanging on his wall an ISA Senior Member certificate as well as an ISA Award. As a conversation starter, I asked him about ISA and he went on and on about it, so I kind of redirected him to my situation. When I told him I just moved my family down from Oklahoma to live so I could work and earn my education, he told me he was amazed. I had a new mentor!

As the days and months went by, life was a challenge because I had very little spare time. In addition, I got homesick. Sure, I was now living in the energy hub, east of Houston. The potential for me to get a job here as a tech-while I completed my studies-with a good company was growing. But as Dorothy said in The Wizard of Oz, "there's no place like home." While starting my last semester, I got nervous. What if I couldn't find a job? What if….?

Well, as helpful as the Lee College instructors are in career guidance, their advice centers on local opportunity. I had a new goal: get back to Oklahoma. So I formed a new plan: find a job in Oklahoma! Mr. Tunstall helped me get started using the Internet as a tool. He built my confidence by reminding me as to why I came to Lee College. He said I've almost completed my goal and will soon get my credentials. Mr. Cole also pointed to Lee College. He said the college has a good reputation with solid curricula that are respected. He said: You sacrificed everything to study here. People will respect you for this. You gained your education in the energy hub of the USA. You will be very attractive. Don't worry about being an exact fit. Apply so you can let each company decide if they are interested in you or not.

I identified jobs in Oklahoma then I applied online for several positions. I was uncertain about job-hunting so far away.  As it turns out, my busy life was going to get busier. My mentor saw joy on my face when I alerted him I would need to miss a class to drive up to Oklahoma for an interview. Mr. Tunstall assured me that it would be insane to stand in the way of a student using his education to achieve employment! I interviewed several times in Oklahoma. This period was very stressful. They say the darkest hour comes before dawn. On top of everything else, now I am spending three-day weekends driving 20 hours roundtrip, missing work and missing school. Who doesn't pray from time to time that the sun will actually rise up again tomorrow? I sure did and prayers were answered! It was the dawn of my new life. Out of six interviews, I had five job offers! It was an awesome feeling.

Today, I am back in Oklahoma, in Tulsa, working as an instrumentation technician with an excellent company, Holly Frontier Corporation.  I have a great supervisor, competitive pay, benefits, etc. My purpose in this story is to encourage other people to realize that dreams can come true. A mentor, education, and professional society affiliations can change your life if you are willing to use these tools. Sure, there will be a sacrifice for a season of what seems to be an endless midnight as you work hard to meet your goals. But if you are relentless, I am convinced you will see the early rays of dawn on the horizon that is such an awesome feeling. You'll start the new life you envisioned when you first set that simple goal to make life better for your family.

I will end my story by bragging about my college and ISA, my professional organization. It turns out Mr. Tunstall is a DOL certified Instrumentation Technician who left Exxon in 1991 to begin a career as a teacher at Lee College under David Bourque. When Mr. Bourque left a few months later to be Program Leader of Instrumentation at San Jacinto College, Mr. Tunstall became the Instrumentation Program Leader, growing it into a premier program known far and wide… even in Oklahoma!

He started the Process Technology studies in 1992, grew them both alongside each other until after a couple of years he brought in Chuck Thomas who took a mid-career change from Exxon to lead Process Technology as an AAS program. Then Mr. Tunstall brought in another full time teacher, Mr. Chuck Carter, who left Bayer at mid-career to help teach process and instrumentation.  Mr. Tunstall then initiated the building of a full-scale plant for training, gaining the permission of the College Board of Regents.

A brilliant student, Bryon Lewis, an ISA author, designed the pilot plant, built a control center out of wood with consoles, generated AutoCAD drawings, and procured vessel donations. Treaf Andres joined the team as the Professional Engineer, working with a team of industry volunteers to accomplish a full-scale working operational distillation unit valued at $1 million on the college campus at zero cost to the college.

Mr. Carter used the Bryon Lewis pilot plant as a foundation to receive two National Science Foundation (NSF) million dollar grants, back to back, to create a certified Foundation Fieldbus study center, one of only a few in the world. Most recently, Mr. Tunstall received a $1 million dollar NSF grant, Analyzer Technician Opportunities Project (ATOP), to fulfill industry-driven demand to start teaching analytical instrumentation to pipeline students into industry. In order to broaden the base, he asked Mr. Bourque to join the initiative and together they built parallel analyzer programs at Lee and San Jacinto colleges.

I also just learned that Mr. Tunstall initiated an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Analytical Instrumentation at Lee College that begins this coming fall. Finally, there's going to be an Analyzer Technology Program in the USA leading to a degree! One more thing: Mr. Tunstall created a state of Texas certificate of completion centered on teaching industry workers the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) Instrumentation curriculum. This curriculum leads to NCCER certification, which is a required credential for contractor workers. Well, you can easily tell that I am very proud that I am a Lee College alum. I trusted Mr. Cole's advice and it placed me on a campus that provided a good foundation for my studies.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned at Lee College is that I ought to be a member of the ISA. Since that first day in Mr. Tunstall's office, when I used ISA as a conversation starter until today, I have gained an appreciation and respect for the ISA as a professional organization that grew up alongside of instrumentation technology.

You might say ISA is the backbone of our technology because it not only created the standards for performing instrumentation work, but it maintains them as well. ISA also created and maintains sections of local members around the world as well as divisions of instrumentation technical interest groups.

For example, my section is the Greater Oklahoma Section of the ISA and my interests align me with the Process Measurement and Control Division and the Analysis Division. When I was studying at Lee College, my section was the Lee College Section. Every student section has an advisor and a liaison to a parent section. In our case, the parent section is the Texas Channel Section. Beyond that, Mr. Tunstall explained to me the supportive role that Mary Cannon always has played since he chartered the Lee College Section in 1992. He pointed her out as a person he can rely on to visit the campus to encourage students to begin a career in instrumentation.

My thanks go to Mr. Cole, Lee College, my employer, and my family who supported me during this entire process.

For more information on Lee College and its Technical Studies program, visit the program website.