Nicole Skaugen, 32
Market Manager, Heavy-Duty Sacks, Nova Chemicals Corp.
Nicole Skaugen has worked in the petrochemicals space almost her entire career, as she started at Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. LLC right out of college.
Born in Norman, Okla., Skaugen graduated with distinction from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in chemical engineering and a minor in mathematics. She joined CP Chem in 2012 as a process engineer, then moved to project portfolio analyst in 2013 and project controls analyst in 2015.
Skaugen became an associate capability manager for HM Health Solutions in 2016 before joining Moon Township, Pa.-based Nova Chemicals Corp. in 2018 as a PE price analyst.
"My first big exposure to the plastics side of petrochemicals was working as a PE pricing analyst, and it happened to come right as things were really getting crazy in the market," she said. "New units were starting up and supply was outpacing demand, resulting in much more frequent price changes and a lot of competitive activity. I learned a lot in a very short amount of time, and it set me up to successfully move into the PE price manager role and now into a market management role."
Skaugen added PE price manager to her title in 2019, followed by market manager for heavy-duty sacks in January 2021.
"I have always been much more interested in downstream processing. Going to school in Oklahoma, many of my classmates went to work in oil. I personally never found drilling or refining to be all that exciting. But taking the byproducts and turning them into something everyone uses all the time, now that was interesting," she said. "As I have spent more time in the industry, I have only become more fascinated with all the things humans have been able to create that have truly improved our lives."
Skaugen is involved with the Pet Sustainability Coalition, Ellevate Network and United Way.
She said she wants to be a people leader, with the goal of making it to senior leadership.
"I have learned over the years that I really enjoy helping people learn and grow," she said, "and being in senior leadership gives you the space and voice to enact the bigger changes you want to see to improve the company and industry."
Skaugen was nominated by Andie Stiles, marketing communications and trade PR manager of Nova Chemicals.
Q: What is your greatest achievement?
Skaugen: I was one of the first at CPC to hold the role of project controls analyst. Previously it had not been done in-house or in other cases had just been a small part of the project manager's job. We knew as an organization that it was a critical function that really needed full-time dedication, but the particular project I was joining was with a project manager who had been doing the job for 20-plus years and felt it was completely unnecessary to break it out. They made it pretty clear to me they felt that way but was really being given no choice in the matter.
I made it my mission to prove them wrong, but by doing one simple thing: doing my job and doing it well. After about six months, not only did I have them convinced that breaking out the role was incredibly useful but also that I brought value to the team that no one else could. It was a great learning experience for the actual work involved but also taught me a lot about how to work with people that may not always see the same value in something you do. I have been able to take this and apply it to every role I have had since.
Q: One of our criteria for Rising Stars is whether they are active in plastics industry, manufacturing or their community. How are you involved?
Skaugen: I will be presenting in May (with previous Rising Star Brant Wunderlich) at the Petfood Forum, discussing shifting consumer perceptions and their impact on sustainable pet food packaging innovation.
I have been a member of the NOVA Chemicals Pittsburgh United Way Committee since I joined the company in 2018. Our biggest task every year as a committee is to run the UW campaign for our company site. When we were in the office, this involved events and activities to educate people on the impact of the United Way and encourage them to give back to their community; I led the organization of and hosted several key events for these campaigns.
Workplace campaigns make up a significant portion of the UW's funds each year, so it is critical for us to rally our fellow employees as much as possible. It is very important to me to give back to the community I live in and working with the United Way allows me to make a bigger impact.
Q: What about the plastics industry surprises you?
Skaugen: The innovation never stops, even though the end-use consumer often has had no knowledge of changes or improvements. I think many consumers would be surprised to know how much plastic packaging in particular has changed in the last 10-15 years.
In industries like tech, innovation is driven more obviously by the consumer. They can see and feel innovation, so they demand it. But in plastic packaging, innovation is driven much more subtly. We have to anticipate consumer needs and find new ways to solve them.
Sustainability brings a new challenge as it can often impact the look and feel consumers are used to, either through changing the type of packaging or through the inclusion of PCR. But I have no doubt the industry will find new and creative ways to tackle this.