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Calling all chemical engineers

By Chemical Engineering |

Today’s chemical process industries (CPI) are riding on the tails of the best four-year stretch that the global economy has seen since the late 1960s or early 1970s. Engineering workloads in North America have at least tripled in the last 18 months or so; in Europe and Japan, they’ve doubled; and growth in China is off the charts by Western standards, according to research from Daratech, Inc.

The downside to this upswing is that it comes at a very inconvenient time. Baby boomers are retiring, and new chemical engineers are not entering the field fast enough to fill the empty chairs left behind. Meanwhile, like the prosperity that is fueling the expansion, the problem of worker shortage is global.

The shortage of chemical engineering graduates stems back to the primary level. The Chairman of the U.K.’s Chemical Business Association (CBA), Ken Gilkes, of Stort Chemicals, has called for a renaissance in chemistry education in order to meet the future needs of society and the chemical industry. According to the CBA, the number of secondary school students taking chemistry in the U.K. has fallen by 37% in the last ten years. This means that almost 15,000 fewer students have taken the subject. Figures for the decline in students taking physics are even worse.

CBA’s “Chemistry with Cabbage” education initiative is designed to encourage an interest in chemistry by providing hands-on workshops using familiar chemicals, such as sugar, soap and vinegar, that are found in every home. “Chemistry is vital, and to persuade our young people to take an interest in it is essential for the future well-being of our industry. To achieve this, youngsters must be enthused by chemistry as a subject, so cultivating interest at primary school age is critical,” Gilkes says.

On the opposite side of the Atlantic, concern over the education problem has risen to the legislative level. Last month, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science (COMPETES) Act, a bill aimed at improving math and science education and strengthening the nation’s commitment to scientific research. According to the Infinity Project, a U.S. national education initiative, fewer than 15% of all current high school graduates in the U.S. have the math and science background necessary to successfully pursue an engineering degree; and only two out of every 100 high school graduates go on to earn engineering degrees. The America COMPETES Act authorizes a total of $33.6 billion over fiscal years 2008–2010 for science, technology, engineering and math education programs. Among other things, it also establishes an agency designed to engage in high-risk, high-reward energy research under the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

While longterm initiatives like these are certainly welcomed and needed, it will take decades for the CPI to begin reaping the rewards. Even if we could magically speed up the process to produce at least one graduating chemical engineer for each that retires today, the resulting deficit of vast experience would be looming around the corner.

So, as industry associations, governmental bodies and vendors to the CPI tackle this larger challenge, there is one way in which each and every chemical engineer can contribute — starting now. We encourage each of you to put your practical, how-to advice down on paper and submit it to us for publication (look for the link entitled Editorial Submissions at www.chemengonline.com). Such hands-on knowledge rarely adorns the pages of textbooks and seldom has a voice in the world of academia. For more than a century, though, it has found a home on the pages of this magazine.

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