Adapt or perish

Embrace changes in our profession to survive and succeed

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By Mark Rosenzweig

Early in my career, I spent four years in Europe. That assignment drastically altered my perspective of the chemical industry. Before then, like many young American chemical engineers, names like Dow, DuPont and Union Carbide first came to mind when I thought of major players in the industry. Similarly, my list of top engineering firms invariably started with companies such as Fluor, M.W. Kellogg and Scientific Design. That was natural enough in those days. After all, the American chemical industry enjoyed a massive trade surplus and the home offices of U.S. engineering firms handled loads of major international projects.

However, my stint in Europe disabused me of that provincial view. I soon learned that operating companies such as ICI, BASF and Bayer were as large as or larger than American firms. Likewise, I got a clear understanding that contractors such as Davy, Technip and Uhde were firms with which to be reckoned.

Today, chemical engineers don’t have the luxury of taking an America-centric view of the profession. The United States now imports more chemicals than it exports. Most new plants are being built overseas and more engineering work is shifting abroad. Individual chemical engineers must pay attention to globalization. “A mid-career chemical engineer who chooses to live in the United States is watching job opportunities diminish,” says William Byers, vice president of CH2M Hill, Corvallis, Ore., who also is AIChE’s president.

“An engineer doing routine work must move up on the value chain for security,” says Lawrence Evans, chairman of Aspen Technology, the large Cambridge, Mass.-based software firm. “People also must be flexible, keeping their eyes open for opportunities in a variety of fields,” he adds.

As the cover story points out, chemical engineers will continue to play important roles in the chemical industry and elsewhere. But individual engineers must prepare themselves for the new realities.

“Those who will be the most successful need to know economics and business practices,” says Michael Dolan, executive vice president (and soon to be president) of ExxonMobil Chemical Co., Houston. “Teamwork and leadership are more important than ever since chemical engineering is more collaborative than ever.”

Nigel Hirst, managing director of Haden Freeman Ltd., an engineering firm in Hyde, England, says, “Now, in consulting, everyone has to be a salesperson. So engineers need better communication and presentation skills, and understanding of project-funding issues and other financials.”

Louis Cabano, president of consulting firm Pathfinder LLC, Cherry Hill, N.J., agrees. “Chemical engineers of the future will have to be more internationally oriented and have financial as well as business awareness.” Communicating effectively with businesspeople on matters important to them is crucial for success in selling ideas, no matter whether an engineer is in R&D, sales or another function, he adds.

It’s natural to fear change, but embracing it is essential to surviving in the profession today.

Mark Rosenzweig is editor in chief of Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail him at mrosenzweig@putman.net.

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