Amid a tight labor market, CPI workers at all levels are in high demand as the range of jobs requiring chemical engineering expertise becomes increasingly diverse
Many current indicators suggest that it is a great time to be working in the chemical process industries (CPI). Those with chemical engineering degrees are in high demand, and the salaries reported by working engineers generally reflect that demand (see “Recent CPI Salary Data” section below). At the same time, opportunities for careers are growing as the field evolves. The unemployment rate for chemical engineers remains low (~1.5%), as it has been in recent years and is lower than the overall unemployment rate for all fields, which dropped to 3.7% in October 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS; Washington, D.C.; www.bls.gov).
Competitive labor market
For the past several years, much has been reported about several long-term workforce issues, including a large number of retirements of workers from the “Baby Boom Generation” and a skills gap in many manufacturing sectors, including the CPI. These trends, along with other factors, such as a capital spending boom spurred by inexpensive shale gas in the U.S., have created an ongoing tight market for workers in the CPI. Now, recent factors such as broad economic growth in the U.S. and low overall unemployment, have put additional pressure on the labor market for CPI workers, both degreed engineers and non-degreed skilled workers.
“We are all facing a competition for talent in an environment where there is a decreasing supply for workers amidst an increasing demand,” says Luciana de Oliveira Amaro, BASF vice president for talent development and strategy in North America. “For the manufacturing economy specifically, the U.S. already struggles with shortfalls in manufacturing talent. By 2030, this deficit is set to reach a shortfall of 383,000 workers.” These workforce-related challenges are shared by all companies operating in the U.S., she says.
In October 2018, results from the Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey, conducted by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM; Washington, D.C.; www.nam.org) showed high levels of optimism among manufacturing companies in several sectors, including the CPI. However, the survey also suggests that the inability to attract and retain workers remained the top concern for respondents, with 73.2% of survey takers rating it as their most pressing concern. The survey also found that nearly half of manufacturers (45.4%) cite the skills-gap crisis as the number one threat facing their business.
The need to attract future workers is broadly understood among CPI companies, BASF’s Amaro says, and a raft of policies and programs to encourage students to choose careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have emerged. The burgeoning network of partnerships among industry players, such as BASF, and federal and local governments, along with educational institutions, “makes us optimistic about the future of our workforce development,” Amaro comments.
Further assessing the overall CPI workforce situation, Amaro explains that the two factors of Baby Boomer retirements and capital expansion have affected the labor pools for both bachelors-degree-holding engineers and skilled, non-degree trade workers and operators equally. “On the other hand, there is an important difference: since the 1980s, the U.S. has had a push to make every student college-ready before graduating high school,” Amaro says, leading to an oversupply of four-year degree holders in almost all areas and a lack of focus on middle-skill jobs from primary and secondary education. “This shift helped create a talent pipeline that could not support the middle-skill jobs that our industry and many others need to succeed,” she says.
Expanding career scope
The growth in demand for chemical engineers and those with related expertise has been partially driven by a profound expansion of the traditional domains for chemical engineering jobs. The field of chemical engineering has arguably always been diverse, but today’s chemical engineers have a far wider range of possible employment opportunities than at any time in the past.
“The field of chemical engineering is dynamic, and continues to grow,” says Shrikant Dhodapkar, research fellow at the Dow Chemical Co. (Midland, Mich.; www.dow.com). “It continues to gobble up new, adjacent and allied fields, such as biological processes, nanotechnology, pristine processing, safety-related issues, environmental management and more, so the umbrella gets bigger and bigger, providing new and interesting avenues for chemical engineers to explore.”
The comments from Dhodapkar appear in a recently published book called “Careers in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering,”  which outlines areas where chemical engineers are employed and profiles working engineers in a far-flung range of professional roles. In another profile from the book, Irvin Osborne-Lee, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Prairie View A&M University (Prairie View, Tex.; www.pvamu.edu), remarks that “Chemical engineering is an endlessly flexible, adaptable and dynamic field of study that is forever launching entire new technologies.”
Freeman Self, Bechtel (Houston; www.bechtel.com) design engineer and fellow, supports this perspective: “The demarcation between traditional fields is blurring, with so many chemical engineering advances that continue to be used by, and benefit, many different industry sectors.”
RECENT CPI SALARY DATA
Generally speaking, salaries for those holding chemical engineering degrees have been among the highest across all fields for years, and the current data show all the signs of maintaining those high levels. There are several factors exerting upward pressure on salaries, including a competitive labor market, low unemployment and a growing number of positions requiring chemical engineering expertise.
A recent survey (October 2018) of CPI professionals conducted by Chemical Engineering found that in 2018, the average salary of respondents was $133,600, a 1.6% increase over the average from a similar survey in 2017, and 2.0% higher than in 2016. The survey also found that over 75% of respondents earned a salary greater than $100,000 annually, with 34.7% of all respondents having salaries between $100,000 and $140,000 per year. Only 12% earned less than $80,000 per year. However, the respondent population for the CE survey did skew toward higher experience levels, with 70% reporting more than 15 years of experience. Since engineers with experience tended to report higher salaries, the average is likely somewhat higher than the overall chemical engineering population. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the average salary for chemical engineers as $102,160 in 2017, and, in its biannual salary survey in 2017, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE; New York, N.Y.; www.aiche.org) reported a median salary for chemical engineers of $124,000. The AIChE total was unexpectedly lower than the previous survey in 2015, but the organization said the slight decrease had more to do with changes in survey methodology than an actual decrease in salaries.
In the current 2018 CE survey, the salary average among respondents who worked for chemical manufacturing companies was the highest of all employer types, at just over $136,000. The average salary of respondents who worked at engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firms was $131,150, and for equipment vendors, the average was $127,400. Self-employed consultants averaged $123,000, although the sample size was small.
Also, CE survey takers were asked if they anticipated higher engineering-related salary in 2018 than in the previous year, and the majority (56.7%) said they expected a higher salary, while 37.8% said it would likely be the same. Only 5.5% anticipated a lower salary this year than in the previous year. According to the data collected, over 94% of respondents reported being full-time employees, with others 2.4% working part-time and 2.0% retired. The unemployment rate among respondents stayed low in 2018, at less than 1.5%. The total was a tenth of a percent higher than the level from a similar survey in 2017, but still well below the overall unemployment rate for the U.S., which dropped to 3.7% for all workers in October 2018, according to BLS. The unemployment rate from a year before was 4.1%.
Establishing future directions
The increasingly rapid evolution of the chemical engineering field and its connections to related fields is prompting thought leaders in chemical engineering community to take a fresh look at the directions into which the field appears to be moving in coming years. One example is current activities on the part of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS; Washington, D.C.; www.nationalacademies.org).
In 1988, NAS published a report called “Frontiers in Chemical Engineering: Research Needs and Opportunities” (Figure 2). The report was an effort to produce a roadmap for “turning promising research opportunities into reality, while guiding university educational efforts to embrace new frontiers.”
Now, 30 years after the publication of that study, NAS is planning another report to “outline a vision for the chemical engineering discipline and point the way for research, education and workforce development directions over the next 25 years.” Tentatively titled “Chemical Engineering in the 21st Century: Challenges and Opportunities,” the study will be organized and managed by the NAS Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology (BCST), and has a planning committee led by Joane Brennecke, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin (www.utexas.edu).
To support development of the study, the committee has raised $300,000 from the chemical engineering community so far, and has also secured additional funding from federal scientific funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation (Alexadria, Va.; www.nsf.gov) and the Department of Energy Office of Science (Washington, D.C.; www.energy.gov). The NAS study report is expected to be delivered in autumn of 2020.
The new report aspires to “articulate and transform the chemical engineering profession, guiding its vision of future research, innovation and education.” It also will address other topics, such as the changing needs of industry in the 21st century, effective engagement with related fields, strengthening diversity, modernizing educational curricula and others, the NAS planning committee states.
Emphasizing the need for the chemical engineering discipline to continue to evolve in future decades to address the rapidly changing needs of society while taking advantage of new scientific capabilities, the NAS planning committee points to several specific areas that are affecting how research priorities, education and the practice of chemical engineering are viewed. These include advances in computing power and communications technologies that have changed how chemical engineers model and design, monitor, control and protect manufacturing processes and products. Computational power also has implications for predicting outcomes, managing data and publishing results. Related to the computing aspect is the the advent of data science and analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, all of which will have implications for chemical engineering research and process design, says the NAS planning committee.
Another concept likely to frame the forthcoming NAS report is the “growing transdisciplinary nature of the field,” the committee says. Embracing this multidisciplinary nature will have major impacts on education, training and workforce development in chemical enginering, the planning committee states. The study will also consider the growing focus on sustainability in process design and manufacturing, changing feedstocks and the advent of process intensification.
Evolving education approaches
Already, initiatives are underway to modify the approach to chemical engineering education, with an eye toward the future and with a focus on the transdisciplinary nature of chemical engineering roles.
For example, in the U.K., there has been an inauguration of a “from-scratch” engineering-only future university, the New Model in Technology and Engineering (NMiTE), designed to approach education differently than traditional programs, and create a project-based educational experience (Figure 3). The U.K. has a shortage of engineers, so the future university project is being set up partly to address this, but also has as its impetus, a number of other factors. Traditional engineering programs are good at producing graduates with a high level of academic knowledge, but who may not be as adept at applying knowledge to new problems, working in teams, communicating, and other requirements of today’s modern workplace.
“When students are trained within a set of narrow fields, they tend to view engineering challenges through the lens of that specialty,” explains Dave Allan, a professor at NMiTE. “What we are trying to do is to begin with the problems, and allow the challenges to guide the learning, rather than teaching the solutions and then trying to apply those to the problems.”
“Currently, the rate of change in technologies is too fast to teach anyone all of the technical material that could be relevant,” Allan continues, “so we are looking to provide a basis in fundamental engineering principles and then fill in the gaps in technical knowledge according to the problems we are facing.”
The new university which is located in Hereford, U.K., is deliberately devoid of specific departments, recognizing that modern challenges are largely multidisciplinary. Subject to validation, NMiTE, which has been planned for 7 years, will welcome its first cohort of students in the fall of 2019. Students will attend lectures and laboratories for 8-hours per day, year-round, and will finish an accelerated Masters degree in three years. They will work onsite with various employers, tackling real-world projects that contribute toward their degree.
“You won’t come here to study engineering; you’ll come here to be an engineer,” says NMiTE. “So our learner engineers will work collaboratively in small groups, on real-world engineering problems set by real-world organizations, mentored by real-world engineers.”
NMiTE was inspired by a previous effort in the U.S. — namely Olin College of Engineering (Needham, Mass.; www.olin.edu). Olin was among the leaders in projects-based engineering education, a concept that has been increasingly taking hold in universities across the country.
Explaining Olin’s approach, Rob Martello, associate dean of faculty and professor of the history of science and technology, says “The grand challenges facing our 21st century society do not obey disciplinary boundaries, and progress cannot depend on the simple application of a content set. Students need to learn how to learn, need to be comfortable with ambiguous problem framings, and must remain constructive in the face of repeated setbacks and unexpected challenges.”
Continuing, Martello argues that engineering education needs to create a learning environment and culture that “prepares students to become interdisciplinary problem solvers by offering numerous authentic opportunities to learn and demonstrate teamwork, research proficiency, communication skill, the ability to learn on the spot, and strategies for approaching problems that lack a single right answer.”
Each summer, Olin runs a weeklong interactive workshop for university engineering educators on “Designing Student-Centered Learning Experiences.” As it helps other universities, Olin continues to refine and innovate in its own educational approach. For example, Martello says Olin is creating a growing number of interdisciplinary project experiences that blend technical and nontechnical knowledge, skills and attitudes.
And looking forward, Martello says Olin’s new focus over the next few years will be to add ethics and values throughout its technical curriculum, not as standalone philosophy courses, but as fundamental components of every engineer’s practice.
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