Where are chemical engineers headed?

Will opportunities in today's "hot" sectors , such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, among others, allow chemical engineering to continue to thrive?

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Cabano warns that some operating companies have gone too far in outsourcing. "We've seen more efforts to push the outsourcing envelope. Some companies have come dangerously close to losing core competencies. Others have cut back beyond the critical point, for instance, in operations, without knowing it They are so bare-boned that if talent is still there, which it often isn't, there's no ability to spot possible improvements," he adds.

Cussler agrees. "Outsourcing is reaching into the technical core of chemical companies. A lot of companies, instead of developing technology, are purchasing it, even letting others run the units. There's a higher degree of this than in the past. It's not just a lack of resources but a change in philosophy. This type of outsourcing is still a commodities phenomenon." He adds that a few operating companies now are starting to recognize their technical deficiencies and are hiring engineers.

The pendulum is swinging back, but cautiously, Cabano says. The numbers are modest and will never reach previous levels.  

The ranks of experienced engineers, however, are thinning. Previous rounds of downsizing have led many veterans to retire early. Now, many engineers who survived the earlier cuts are nearing retirement and will take their institutional knowledge with them, Center warns. "This hollowing out will become an issue."

"I see real problems coming down the road in the area of renovating/ upgrading or, in some cases, replacing old and obsolete plants," Hirst says. "A crisis of experience will occur within five years." AspenTech's Evans also voices concern about the loss of knowledge, but is more upbeat. "The new generation of engineers will be able to do it, though it may be a bit hairy at times," he says.

Grappling with globalization
In decades past, the building of plants overseas often benefited chemical engineers in the United States because many projects were handled by American engineering firms from their home offices. However, that has changed dramatically. Staffing at U.S. engineering and construction companies has suffered because a great deal of the detailed engineering work has been shifted to lower-cost offices abroad. "Much engineering design has been commoditized, so it can be done anywhere," says ExxonMobil's Dolan.

Cornell's Center agrees, and is discouraged by the prospects for U.S. engineering contractors. "Design engineering is becoming a commodity, not unlike steel plate, and more and more of it is moving overseas to follow the lowest cost per work hour," he says. "At the same time, corporations are placing more and more of their faith in the capability of the engineering contractors to design and construct process plants as they cut back their own capability in plant design and project management. A lot of more senior people have gone, and this leads to pedestrian designs to give the lowest-cost engineering." Only engineering firms that offer specialized process technology will thrive, he warns.

The picture is not all grim, though. The expertise and creativity of U.S. chemical engineers is a great competitive strength, many observers say. That's why much of the sophisticated work will remain in the United States, notes AspenTech's Evans. For the same reason, U.S.-based licensors and process designers will continue to lead, says Honeywell's Alzein.

 The ability to come up with new ideas is only part of the picture. A willingness to implement the ideas and reward the developers also is crucial, and this is another key strength of the United States. Our culture encourages entrepreneurship, Evans says.

Worries about competitiveness are overblown, says Joseph Jacobs, founder and chairman of Jacobs Engineering, Pasadena, Calif. The engineering firm has numerous offices around the world and employs about 1,000 chemical engineers in India alone. However, the ingenuity of American engineers is unrivaled, he says. "At Jacobs, the gutsy and creative work is done by a small group in the United States. Such work will remain in the United States because chemical engineers here are creative."

Retaining a technological edge is crucial for the United States, Byers says.
Overall, Cussler predicts a smaller profession 10 years from now. "There won't be a catastrophic reduction in the number of chemical engineering jobs," he says, explaining that the severest cutbacks already have occurred. "The worst is over but the best is not yet to come," he concludes. However, others are more optimistic. "The overall demand for chemical engineers will grow, but not explosively," Evans believes. In 10 years, however, it will be a much broader profession, he adds. Byers also foresees modest growth. Cabano says substantial growth only will come if the profession moves more strongly toward invention and away from more mundane work.

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

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