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June 3rd, 2011

What’s the State of Chemical Engineering Employment in 2011?

By John Vasko | Comments (0)
CEP's (Chemical Engineering Progress) biennial salary survey is presented in the June 2011 issue. Look for it in print, on AIChE.org/CEP, or on a future post here. In addition to questions about facts, figures, and demographic data, respondents were asked three open-ended questions. The most interesting of them was...

Are there any observations on the state of chemical engineering employment you would care to share?

This question elicited a number of interesting responses. After I read them, a couple of themes were apparent to me:
  • Many jobs are moving overseas, to locations outside of the United States.
  • Ageism is alive and well, according to respondents.
  • Flexibility and communication skills are an industry issue.
Do these themes look familiar? They are not dissimilar to what professionals across many industries are facing. However, for every person who predicted doom and gloom, there was a positive person who had nothing but praise for the chemical engineering profession. Similar contractions were apparent throughout the responses. Let's dive in and look at a few.

Location. Location. Location.

There were many people who complained that jobs are moving out of North America:
Industry is cutting back in North America. New graduates better make sure [they] are willing to go overseas to find work. With so many companies moving overseas and so many highly skilled and educated middle-aged scientists and engineers being laid off in the chemical/pharmaceutical process industries, why would a young person choose an engineering career over business?
And there were others who disagreed:
...the job market for chemical engineers in the US will remain strong as long as internationals continue to pursue their education in the U.S. but then return to their country of origin for employment. The U.S. will remain a center of innovation especially in the upcoming renewable energy sector and chemical engineers will continue to provide the technical expertise and innovation we have provided the chemical, petrochemical, and energy industries over the past century.

Age Discrimination.

There are complaints from older workers like this:
Age discrimination is very much alive and well. If I write my resume generally without age or [time] durations I get several responses. Once enough information is obtained by a prospective employer to determine an approximate age the "Great Silence" sets in and all conversations cease.
And then there are those that have managed to navigate positions throughout their senior years. Are they lucky or strategic?
Chemical Engineering is a very stable and rewarding profession and I would never have chosen anything else. I have been unemployed for exactly one week in the last 28 years, but I have had to make a few strategic moves to stay that way. Chemical Engineering offers a broad preparation for a career. At age 65, I started my first assignment in mineral processing.

Communicate. And Be Flexible.

A chemical engineering degree is very versatile. The skills learned in obtaining this degree can be applied to almost any position, in any industry. If seeking employment, look at all your assets and don't pigeon-hole yourself into a traditional chemical engineering position. Although technical expertise has always been valued for what it means to the success of an enterprise, compensation has always been skewed to favor management skill over technical. Those few technical experts who cultivate communication skills are able to write their own ticket with respect to those who leave the people skills to others.

Other noteworthy responses (and differences of opinion) include:

Chemical Engineers must adjust their curriculum to train engineers of the future for careers in bio-technology, clean energy and alternative fuels, etc. Need more fundamentally trained ChE's; too many are hybridized into bio-med and environmental sciences and lack sufficient process and project engineering skills for large scale development projects... The call for more STEM education rings hollow. The reason kids don't study engineering is that the equation has changed. It's still a lot of effort, but there is no guaranteed or stable payoff at the end. It's simple really - if you want kids to get a STEM education, stop laying off their parents.

I pasted the response text into a wordle (see large version) for a graphic representation of word frequency:

You can see it large here.

What do you think of some of the responses above?

What observations on the state of chemical engineering employment do you have?

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