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Happy Days are Here Again

By Chemical Engineering |



While statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS; Washington, D.C.; www.bls.gov) and trends reported by the American Chemistry Council (ACC; Arlington, Va.; www.americanchemistry.com) suggest chemical engineers seeking work may be singing the blues, chemical processors and chemical engineering professors are belting out a very different tune.

According to BLS’s 2000 to 2010 Job Outlook Report, there were 33,000 employed chemical engineers in the year 2000 with only slightly higher than a 4% positive employment change projected for 2010, meaning there would be an additional 1,400 positions available over the ten-year period. “The only growth is expected in the services industries, especially research and testing. New graduates may face keen competition,” says the report.

Kevin Swift, the American Chemistry Council’s chief economist, also offers a grim outlook regarding employment growth. “There have been ongoing plant closures as a result of the natural gas crisis and it has resulted in job losses in many support areas,” says Swift. He is quick to add, however, that since chemical engineers provide core knowledge, their positions are not being eliminated. “But there is little growth and few new opportunities for them in the general chemical industry,” says Swift.

Swift, however, acknowledges that the average age of the chemical industry employee is 50, which means that 30–35% of the workforce will be eligible for retirement in five years. “As the baby boomer generation chemical engineers retire, there is the potential for young chemical engineers to move up quickly,” says Swift. “It’s an issue that many in the industry are concerned about.”

It would seem that Swift hit the nail on the head with his comment, as many chemical processors are ignoring the gloomy industry outlook and beefing up their chemical engineering staffs in preparation.


Retirement spurs opportunity

“Right now there’s a strange dynamic taking place. Although the U.S. chemical industry continues to decline in the face of ever-stronger competition from overseas, spurred to a large part by the lack of a national energy policy, our need for chemical engineers is actually rising,” says Deborah Borg, Dow Chemical Co.’s (Midland, Mich., www.dow.com) workforce planning manager for North America. “Unlike other parts of the world, the U.S. need is not being driven by domestic industry growth, but rather by high rates of attrition.”

In addition to retiring boomers, she says cautious hiring practices in the 1990s have created a void in the number of chemical engineers with 10 to 15 years experience, which is a “hole we need to fill.” She adds that chemical processors have been suffering, in recent years, from a shrinking talent pool with a notable fall in the number of engineering graduates. “All this has taken a toll in terms of filling our talent pipeline,” says Borg. She adds that Dow, like most chemical processors, is recruiting and hiring both recent graduates and experienced chemical engineers to fill the gaps.

“We need both kinds of chemical engineers,” says David Karesh, chairman of the South Texas Section of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (Houston, Tex.; www.sts-aiche.org). “We need to get young people into engineering careers so we don’t suddenly have a huge void as the baby boomers retire, but we can’t start loading up on nothing but fresh grads because if we don’t add experienced engineers at the same time, we don’t have anyone to watch over them, and they can be time intensive. So there’s a real interest in obtaining experienced engineers, too.”

While most firms claim to want experienced chemical engineers for similar reasons, it would seem they aren’t turning their noses up at newbies. “The job market seems quite good this year for our chemical engineering grads,” says Dr. Wayne Bequette, professor and acting head of the Dept. of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI; Troy, N.Y.; www.rpi.edu). He says the school’s Campus Career Development Center reported that 77% of the chemical engineering students who registered with the center have accepted jobs with an average starting salary of $62,888. He adds that the number may actually be higher, because some students obtain employment without the assistance of the Campus Career Development Center.

Bequette also mentions that B.S.-level grads are receiving significant signing bonuses. “One student told me about his bonus, and I was almost shocked by the amount!” he says. “This concept is fairly new to me at the B.S. level. Usually we see this at the Ph.D. level.”

He suggests a shortage of chemical engineering grads coinciding with impending baby boomer retirements has something to do with the positive outlook. “Chemical engineering always goes through a 10- or 20-year cycle with graduation rates, and we are still at the low end of the cycle,” he says. He notes that last year RPI graduated 30, this year it was around 40, but in the past the school has sent off up to 90 or 95 graduates in a year. “The trend is the same across the U.S., the class sizes are smaller, and as the economy gets better and industry needs more chemical engineers to replace those who are retiring or to fill the growth in certain regions and industries, the more offers new graduates are going to get,” he says. “The outlook seems really optimistic to me.”


Gulf Coast opportunities

Bequette is on target when he mentions increasing opportunities in certain locations and industries. There is a dire need for chemical engineers along the U.S. Gulf Coast region, especially in Louisiana and southern Texas.

Tia Edwards, who assists the Louisiana Chemical Association (LCA; Baton Rouge, La.; www.lca.org) with workforce development issues through her consulting firm To the T, says LCA member companies are desperate for chemical engineers following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. According to Edwards, the area was always fertile ground for chemical engineers because there is a significant chemical processing industry in the state and a large petroleum-refining industry along the coast. But once the hurricanes devastated the area, many employees, including chemical engineers, left because their homes were destroyed, and replacement housing in the area was difficult to find at the time. “They left, found work in other states and aren’t coming back, so now we have to fill the positions that remain open following these losses.”

Additionally, many Louisiana chemical-related businesses were planning expansions and capacity increases before the hurricanes struck. Many of these expansions went through on the heels of the rebuild period, creating even more openings for chemical engineers. “On top of replacing the staff we lost due to the hurricanes, we also have to add on with new positions to get these expansions up and running. It’s really been a double whammy around here,” notes Edwards.

She says there are opportunities for recent grads, but that experienced chemical engineers are more in demand. “It is easier for us to get recent grads because most don’t have families and aren’t as cautious about heading to an area that is now considered by many outside the state to be devastated. But, we really need experienced engineers here,” says Edwards. “For this reason many chemical companies are willing to pay higher salaries for seasoned engineers.”

However, the higher salaries don’t come without a price. “They may have additional duties because we are so short staffed, but I feel safe in saying any chemical engineers will be well taken care of by their employers with very handsome benefits packages and attractive salaries,” she says. “The businesses here know they have hurdles to cross so they are trying to make it extremely attractive for engineers to come to this state.”

Similarly, chemical engineers are in great demand in southern Texas. “There is a such a great need to fill chemical engineering positions in this neck of the woods that there have been joint job fairs in the area and many companies are starting to offer bounties to anyone who brings in new employees,” says Karesh. “I think the bounty programs really demonstrate significant opportunities.”


New energy sources fuel growth

Karesh says much of the growth in the area, which ordinarily requires a lot of chemical engineers for refinery and petrochemical development, has to do with environmental issues. “There has been an increase in environmental work, such as developing ultra-low sulfur diesel and low-sulfur gas, as well as work on NOx reduction projects,” says Karesh. “These environmentally driven projects by plants and refineries in the area have created even more opportunities than usual for chemical engineers.”

ACC’s Swift agrees that new energy sources and related environmental issues may provide some new, non-traditional chemical engineering opportunities. “Ethanol and biodiesel, as well as other forms of biofuels may be some growth areas,” he says. “There’s also a lot of interest in coal-to-chemical plants, which will require a lot of chemical engineering knowledge. And biotech firms will need chemical engineers.”

Case in point: The folks at BASF (Florham Park, N.J.; www.basf.com/usa) are bulking up on engineering talent because they have businesses in some of these fields. Randi Casey, manager of staffing for the firm, says BASF has been adding five entry-level chemical engineers each year, but expects to boost numbers higher this year and into 2008 with the addition of 35 new chemical engineering positions, which are necessitated by recent acquisitions.

In 2006 BASF acquired three companies, including Engelhard Corp., Johnson Polymer and Degussa Construction Chemicals. “These acquisitions are driving a hiring trend because we’ve significantly expanded our business into new areas.”

For example, she notes that Engelhard is involved in fuel cells. “These new markets are causing an increase in the need for chemical engineers and we are making sure we are structured to handle the demand,” says Casey.

So, it would seem that despite a doom-and-gloom outlook put forth by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the beginning of the decade, a shortage of engineering students, retiring Baby Boomers and new niche industries with a growing demand for chemical engineers have created a job outlook that should have job-seeking chemical engineers singing “Happy Days are Here Again.”



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