An interview with one of SMSS’ members featuring her journey and achievements as a military spouse in a STEM career field.
Meet Jacki LaFevers. Jacki is a Senior Operations Support Engineer at Shell Upstream Americas Deepwater in the Gulf of Mexico. When she is not working a 14-day rotation on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, she is stationed with her husband at North Island (Coronado) Naval Air Station in San Diego, California. With a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering, and a PMP Certification in hand, Jacki is poised to bring teams together in a collaborative environment, even in the middle of the ocean. She’s a military spouse who doesn’t let location stop her from chasing her career goals.
How did you meet your service member spouse?
I met my husband in my junior year of Mechanical Engineering school. We met in a design class, we were on the same team, became friends and then after the semester, we started dating and then here we are, six years later.
What are your favorite things about living in San Diego?
San Diego is gorgeous and has beautiful weather. We came from Pensacola, Florida where it was very humid. I love how awesome the weather is here. We are able to do a lot of hiking and outdoor activities which is nice to be able to get out and enjoy the beautiful weather and the beaches as well. There’s so much to do no matter what you like.
Has this been your favorite duty station?
I would say this is my favorite, even though this is only our second duty station. My husband was in Pensacola for the first couple of years and we have been here for close to 2 years.
How does your day start?
I currently work a 14-day rotation schedule. I fly out to the platform on Day 1 of my hitch and then spend 14 days straight living and working out there. We work 12-hour shifts and I am typically considered part of day shift, however I am salary (not hourly) so the hours tend to be more like 14-15-hour days. The first meeting of the day is at 5:45am so I wake up around 5am.
Tell us about your position with the company Shell?
I started with Shell over 5 years ago but transferred to my current position in May of 2017. I am currently the senior operations support engineer. Essentially what that means is that I provide daily technical support to our operations in the Gulf of Mexico. My responsibilities include answering questions that come up throughout the day such as what torque value is needed for a particular flange, what pressure can we go up to, and other technical questions. I help with the management of change process, getting the right approvals, and verifying technical drawings. If we have any process upsets, then I determine the root cause of those as well and figure out how to prevent it from happening again.
What is your favorite thing to do with your job?
Since I’m out in the field, I always like getting on deck and helping the operators and chemical specialists who are out there everyday keeping operations moving forward. I enjoyed getting inside some of our process vessels during turnarounds and helping rebuild valves..I like the opportunities to be hands on.
How receptive was Shell as a company to your relocation to San Diego?
Shell was in the middle of a reorganization as a company, during a downturn in the oil prices about 4 years ago. It worked out that there happened to be a lot of openings available. My boss knew my situation and let me know that there was an optional rotation position, so he was helpful in trying to find a way for me to be able to keep my job and live in San Diego. But I think overall in general, there’s not really a lot of options for people in my certain situation. Shell only has locations in so many places and predominantly in Houston and New Orleans here in the U.S. so there’s just not a lot of military friendly locations. This offshore rotation was really my only option to be able to keep my job here at Shell. If I was a subject matter expert, there was a potential for remote work, but I’m still relatively new in my career. The company is not equipped to have a lot of employees in my specific situation.
How do you see being a military spouse or being in the military space has helped you with your job?
I have gotten used to moving around and being used to change. Initially, when my husband (at the time, my boyfriend) told me he was going to join the military, I was like, “woah!” and then I realized well now we’re going to be moving and how is this going to work for me? I guess I was not against change, but when I started my career, I just figured that I’d be in the same place for a long time. My mindset has now shifted and I’m more open to change and different opportunities.
One other thing is that the MyCAA scholarship, allowed me to be able to get my PMP certification. I have been able to take advantage of development and scholarship opportunities that are available to military spouses that I wouldn’t have been able to without the financial assistance.
Do you find you’re more adaptable to change than your civilian counterparts?
Yes, I am compared to my co-workers. I am more of an extreme example because most of the men that I work with have grown up and still live in the same towns that they were born in. Whereas, I live in California and commute to the Gulf of Mexico for this job and was born in Pennsylvania. So, compared to the people I work with every single day, I’m in a very different situation and I am very adaptable. I’ve had a lot of change in my life and I’m OK with it. Even the engineers who moved after college to take their positions with Shell in New Orleans, are planning to stay in the same location for their careers and are very uncomfortable with the idea of moving and change.
I believe that it’s a good quality to have long-term, because no matter what you’re doing, no matter what job you have, it’s good to be open to change or be open to moving around. You can always make a new home wherever you go. It opens new doors wherever you end up.
Do you feel that the position has affected your upward promotion potential in the company?
In some ways, yes, and others, no. As far as promotions, the traditional way is to take the engineering route and with that it has slowed because I am now isolated on one specific platform in the Gulf of Mexico. I am not really networking with any of the managers except for those on my platform and I don’t get exposure. If I wanted to go that route it would be harder for me. However, we do have offshore leadership routes. If I were interested in continuing to be offshore then there are leadership positions such as process team leaders or offshore installation manager, which is the person in charge of the actual platform. That’s not something I’m personally interested in because ultimately, I don’t want to stay on a platform forever.
Do you feel that Management is nervous about promoting you because you’re a military spouse?
My current supervisor has already spoken to me about a potential for promotion with a different team, it’s a similar role just a different platform that’s considered more complex, so it’s considered a job grade bump. I don’t think they are completely against bumping me, but I think they would be hesitant to move me away from offshore operations due to my situation. My personal gut is based on their thinking of how long I will stay because of my situation.
How do you feel like Professional Organizations like SMSS can help you with your career or professional goals?
I know that SMSS is a relatively young organization, however, it already has created a network for me. Being able to talk to someone who’s in a similar situation to me is incredible. If I tried to talk to my engineering peers, they don’t understand completely what I’m going through since they are not military spouses. And if I try to talk to military spouses, I don’t know any like me that are engineers so that’s also difficult, as it seems many don’t have STEM professional careers or choose other lifestyles. So, it’s hard to find people who are in the same boat as me or shoes like me. So for me, the attraction to this professional organization is the ability to talk to people who can relate and can give you advice on how to handle the moving and your career. I’m also able to get tips on resumes and finding jobs or overcoming obstacles. It’s just good to have that network that you can just bounce ideas and questions off of.
What do you wish people knew about life in the military?
I wish they knew how hard it can be to maintain your career. You are forced to either jump through hoops to keep your existing job or you must quit and get a new one, which is daunting to me because I would feel like I am starting all over and taking a pay cut. Specifically, with engineering, a lot of ‘experienced hire’ jobs require experience in a specific industry which can be hard to overcome. For example, there isn’t much oil and gas presence in San Diego but unfortunately, that’s the main industry experience I have so it seems I either need to take a semi-related industry job or start over as a new hire.
What advice would you give to new spouses about being in the STEM career field?
The biggest thing that I feel I have had to come to terms with is expecting to move and to have to change jobs/companies. But it doesn’t have to be the end of the world or your career, you just need to be open to change. And to build a network and utilize groups like SMSS to meet people in similar situations and careers to get ideas of ways to manage moving with the military and balancing that with your career.
Thank you Jacki for allowing us to share your story. It is military spouses like Jacki who are making a difference in their professions. We are proud to put a spotlight her and the many other amazing military spouses in STEM.