Surehand Spotlight: Giovanne Lopez

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The Surehand® Spotlight shares just some of the many thousands of stories in the skilled industrial trades, shining a bright light on the hard-working tradesmen and women who build, operate, maintain, and ensure the safety of the world we live in. We also focus on the individuals and organizations working hard to advance industrial sectors and ensure their success over the coming decades.

This month, we train the spotlight on Giovanne Lopez, a Welding Engineering Department Manager at CRC-Evans Pipeline International in Houston, Texas. We recently spoke with Gio about what’s new in Oil and Gas and get his take on how workers can adapt and even get ahead in a rapidly changing market.

Photo credit: Giovanne Lopez

Welcome to the spotlight, Gio. Tell us a little about yourself…

I was born in Denver, but raised in El Paso and Juarez, so I came up in the borderland. 

I was doing engineering at University of Texas El Paso—focused on Mechanical Engineering—but I saw that the market was saturated with people. So they told me, “why don’t you try doing Metallurgical and Materials Engineering?” and I went and did that. I went to school for a lot of years; I think I did seven years, all-in. I have my Bachelor’s and four Associate’s degrees, all in different engineering disciplines. I didn’t stop. I would work almost full time and go to school full time when I could. Sometimes I would work full time and take a class here, a class there, but I never stopped the education. That’s why I like to work with the students these days.

What do you do in your field?

My goal out of college was to work in the open pit mines in Arizona, but I was interviewing a lot all over the country for pipe mills. There was one in Nebraska, in particular that said, “We want to hire you, but you don’t know how to weld.” After that, I ended up interviewing in Houston, and they said, “we’re a Welding Engineering firm, but we need materials support,” and I said, “okay, I’m up for it. Two weeks into the job, I got my first assignment. At that point, I was learning everything on the job. During the day I would learn how the company operates, and at night I was learning about welding. 

I’ve been associated with my current company [CRC-Evans Pipeline International] since 2007. I’ve done projects all over the US, all over the world. I’ve lived in Amsterdam supporting projects; also in Norway, Eastern Europe, Russia, India, China, Australia. We are a subcontractor that builds pipelines for oil companies. We’ve qualified over 100 projects now all over the world. In 2017, I took over the department and became the Welding Engineering Manager.

We know that this has been a tough year for Oil & Gas. With companies that are hiring, what are they looking for?

Experience. You have to train and come in knowing what you’re doing on day one. Low-hydrogen downhill rod is really big right now. It’s meant to be easier to run as it’s supposed to run like a cellulosic rod, but it has the same safety [prevention of hydrogen induced cracking] as the low-hydrogen uphill. A lot of companies are switching to that, so we’re trying to train welders to do that.

Would you say working with Low-Hydrogen Downhill rods is the most important welding skill to have right now?

Right now, yeah. A lot of people are getting laid off, but I’m seeing that a lot of smaller lines are still going. The larger lines are the ones attracting a lot of attention. The DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) was highly publicized, highly controversial. Keystone’s another one. Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is a big pipeline on the East Coast just got canceled, and the Rover was told to shut down. So these massive pipelines are getting a lot of attention, but nobody’s saying anything about the smaller ones. 

The smaller ones are where you have to replace an old line that’s already existing or you’re building a subdivision or the city is expanding; you still need pipelines for that. Some of these lines have been in the ground for a hundred years, so you need to replace them. 

That’s where the Welders come in and that’s where the Inspectors come in. There are ways of detecting the pipe’s thickness. Because it’s a material that comes from the earth, it’s going to go back to the earth; it’s going to rust. It starts to thin out. You run a machine called a “pig” through it and check (for the thickness of the pipe). There’s a lot of opportunities for people (in these kinds of pipeline jobs).

What experience would you look for in hiring workers for this kind of pipeline job?

Any NDE (nondestructive examination) experience is good. For this, you would use a Visual or a UT (ultrasound) system to inspect the pipe. This would include automated ultrasound inspection (AUT).

Sounds like pipeline jobs in utilities and infrastructure replacement are where it’s at. Can you tell us more about what you see for the future of pipeline welding and inspection?

From my perspective, if you can combine both the renewable with the oil and gas, I think that would be a great combination. Texas is big on oil, but down in Central West Texas, you’re going to see a lot of wind farms. Welding is definitely a skill that is transferable from oil and gas to renewable energy. You’re not going to be doing a lot of steel, but you’re going to be welding aluminum and stainless steel. I know they do ultrasound on the blades on the turbines to check for cracks as well.

What advice would you give someone coming out of school and into this field?

Never limit yourself; always try to adapt to the changing environment. Use your degree to get into the industry, but just because your degree is in Mechanical Engineering, it doesn’t mean you have to do Mechanical Engineering. You have skills that are transferable to other types of engineering. I’ve even seen engineers go into sales of the equipment because they know the equipment.  

I always try to evolve. Around here we say, “adapt or die.”

Your company does a lot of work with automatic welding systems. What’s the best way for someone to get experience on those machines and land a job doing automatic welding?

People just starting out can start as a helper. Working on the floor, prepping, welding, then training, then running procedures on the equipment. Be a sponge. At first, your job is to learn.

For people who have been working in the field but would like to go into automatic welding, I tell them, “you want to do this, because otherwise you’ll burn your eyes up.” Arc burn is pretty much a sunburn on your eyes. Once your eyes start being affected, why don’t you go into inspection? If you know what the weld is supposed to look that fits you in perfectly to be able to tell me if my weld is good or bad. You’ll just use a computer or automated system to aid you with that. 

In order to learn how to use automatic welding systems you have to get a job with a contractor that is using the equipment. The oil companies want to get away from the stick welding. You still need it for a few things, but they’re getting away from it on the big, hundred-mile lines and critical lines. We are putting in a line in Houston starting in October and it’s going to go under the Houston Channel. The companies who hire us need operators. We don’t supply operators, we supply technicians, so I try to refer a lot of people I know. So that’s one way to get trained up.

The other way is that there are schools that have our equipment. Texas State Technical College in Waco, Texas State Technical College in Harligen, has our equipment, and Ferris State University in Michigan has our system. I work with instructors (TSTC-H) to do advanced classes so students can learn to program the machines as well.

Lots of workers have a bleak outlook on the O&G sector right now. How would you suggest folks search for jobs or transfer the skills they have to closely related positions?

For the guys who have been working in the field for a while, I suggest they look into inspection. Some of them would make really great project managers and supervisors, since they have been out in the field and know what goes on out there. 

Somebody who has been out to the field knows what you need. For example, they would know, if one employee is changing out his tools a lot faster than the others, then you have a problem. You see patterns if you know exactly what goes on with the processes. Those guys that have been out in the field a while, they know that, so they make good foremen and superintendents.

Another thing we do is coating. You have to coat the pipeline so it doesn’t rust. The pipe itself is coated. Some of it is automated, but some of it is hand-rolling, so there is a lot of potential in that. That’s another way to get into the industry. 

I tell my intern, if you have options (NDE, other skills), you can use welding as a fallback. You need to have options. I try to give them that advice.

 


Our thanks to Gio for making time to share his story and industry insights with us. Listen to his story and the importance of education and training in the skilled industrial trades here. We look forward to watching him mentor the next generation of welding professionals.

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