Are Your Pipeline Controllers Satisfied at Work?

April 2017, Vol. 244, No. 4

By Michele Terranova, Jeanette Daigneau, Charles Alday and Alicia Gibson, Pipeline Performance Group, LLC, Atlanta, GA

Are you satisfied with your job? Do you love your career? Do you expect the same thing from your job that your manager expects from you? Are you valued by your company? Over the last five years of studying workload and human factors in the pipeline industry, we have repeatedly asked these same questions of controllers.

Over 600 controllers from 60 control rooms have participated in our 175 workload assessments conducted from 2012-16. These controllers work in the U.S. and Canada and are responsible for gas transmission, gas distribution, hazard liquids, or gas and liquids.

In our research, we found 81% of the controllers’ surveyed view their job as rewarding, personally and professionally. Compare this to the rest of the U.S. workforce, of which it is estimated 52.3% are unhappy. Our studies indicate that only one out of every five controllers is unhappy with their job. What is the key to this job satisfaction?

Being valued by your company and feeling your work provides value contributes to job satisfaction. Almost all (90%) of the controllers surveyed are satisfied they are performing meaningful work.

We also asked controllers if they feel valued by their company, which addresses a fundamental human need. More than three out of five (68%) said they felt their company recognizes the value they provide.

Taking pride in your career, mitigating any boredom and identifying your value within the product the company produces will give you ownership of your position and show the value you add to the company. Ultimately, this provides a level of investment that will benefit the company and the controller equally – the value that controllers see in their career and the value that the company puts into their controllers.

Another key to job satisfaction may be found in another benchmark that shows most of the controllers surveyed (94%) understand their role as a controller, the authority delegated to them and their accountability for safe operations. Additionally, 80% of the controllers agreed their expectations align with managements’ expectations.

This is valuable insight for managers seeking to increase satisfaction among controllers. Make sure controllers understand their roles and responsibilities, so that these expectations are closely aligned with the company’s expectations. This not only makes sense from a business perspective, but it also plays a vital role in keeping controllers satisfied.

Satisfaction in your day-to-day work will determine if you have a career or if you have just a job. So, what is the difference between a job and a career? A “job” is a compensation package, in which you as an employee give some sort of effort and time, and in return receive a monetary reward. A “career” is a personal adjective; your career is who you are.

As an example, when one of our authors, Jeanette Daigneau, enlisted in the Marine Corps many years ago, she was ready! She was the most motivated recruit to step foot on Parris Island. She showed up knowing the drill instructors would yell and push her to her limits. She enjoyed it; however, after eight years, it had become a job.

At the end of her second enlistment, she decided to find her passion. Today she enjoys her career as a consultant to the pipeline industry, because she knows her work helps improve the safety and well-being of controllers. On the other hand, her husband, with nearly 25 years in the Marine Corps, still loves that life, and if you ask him to talk about himself, one of the first things he will tell you is that he is a Marine.

There is a personal investment aspect when you declare, “Hi, I am John Smith, and I am a pipeline controller.” That is who you are; it defines you. This is where satisfaction comes into play. If you are satisfied, if you feel invested, you will be more likely to see your job as your career.

How do you receive enough satisfaction in your job to make it becomes a career? By realizing it is an investment, most commonly coming over the course of time with job experience, or perhaps through monetary means with education and training. It is an ongoing process with continual improvement, nurturing of professional goals, realizing your value in your work environment, understanding your skill set and setting your sights on the future. This requires an investment in your job for it to become a career and the rewards are limitless.

The end game is to not just be satisfied in your job, for this leads to the tendency of settling for only a satisfactory performance, which can be a hindering bias. Rather, it is seeking that return on personal investment that offers the identity of a career. One trait that negatively affects satisfaction is boredom, or the feeling that each day is “just another day.” Those who invest in themselves, seeking opportunities for cross training and new responsibilities, stave off dissatisfaction and increasingly feel invested in their position.

What do controllers think it takes to be a successful controller? Nearly all (98% or greater) of those we surveyed said knowledge of general pipeline principles and procedures, effectiveness under stress, problem-solving skills, adaptability to change and focus are vital traits for a good controller.

Other traits scoring high: willingness to learn (97%), multitasking (97%), proficiency in applying general pipeline principles and procedures (96%), dedication/loyalty (95%), self-motivation/initiative (96%) and the ability to operate as part of a team (95%). Slightly lower among the controllers were maintaining a positive attitude (91%) and creativity (90%).

One key finding is that a company must decide what is more beneficial: having a contingent of controllers who see their positions as a career or filling the ranks with those who may view their work as simply a job.

Over the past five years, our surveys indicate that 86% controllers are satisfied with the independence/autonomy they are given; 78% report they are satisfied with work conditions; 84% are satisfied with their relationships with supervisors and colleagues; and 81% are satisfied with the support they receive from supervisors or colleagues (Figure 3).

What have we identified as triggers for decreased satisfaction? Among controllers 75% are satisfied with their work schedules and communications while 62% are satisfied with their level of stress. This is critically important when considering the level of investment a company is seeking in their controllers.

The likelihood of retaining controllers for their entire career is a function of the investment made toward continued training and development, and the realization, in general, that employees would like to improve performances but need tools from the company to do so. According to Go2HR, a Canadian human resources association, 40% of employees leave their positions when they do not feel they receive adequate training.

Satisfaction can be difficult to measure; individuals bring personal attitudes and perceptions to the forefront. A company could easily provide career guidance and satisfaction to one person, whereas another employee might be difficult to appease. We believe it boils down to an extremely important part of the investment a company makes – the controller needs to feel valued and respected.

Value, satisfaction and respect are the keys that will unlock the potential of your controllers. Not every day will be sunshine and roses, but more often than not, the satisfaction of your controllers will be parallel to the satisfaction you see in your own career.

Authors: Michele Terranova, Ph.D., is a principal of Pipeline Performance Group, LLC, with over 25 years of experience in human factors and user interface design. She has worked in a vast array of environments, in nuclear, military, aviation and process control. 

Jeanette Daigneau is a human factors consultant at Pipeline Performance Group and served eight years as a U.S. Marine before earning a master’s degree in administration from Central Michigan University. She currently attends Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.  

Charles Alday is a principal of Pipeline Performance Group, LLC, with over 50 years of experience in pipeline construction, operations, maintenance, management and consulting. He has provided human factors and organizational consulting with many pipeline companies, including comprehensive analyses of pipeline control centers.

Alicia Gibson is a principal of Pipeline Performance Group, LLC, with oriented executive experience in strategy, business development, operations, project management, process improvement and team leadership. She has a background in petroleum, transportation, supply chain, manufacturing, emerging technology and international events management.

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