2005 Chemical Industry Salary Survey: Field of Greens

Changing market conditions have prompted us to take a closer look at the chemical processing industry as it continues to evolve. The result is our first-ever salary survey, which has yielded some interesting insights into the workplace.

By Lisa Greenberg, managing editor

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Editor's Note: The figures that accompany this story can be downloaded in PDF format via the "Download Now" button at the bottom of the page.

Payday: Everyone looks forward to it, but just how much cabbage you bring home each pay period depends on what you do and in which sector you work. Changing market conditions have prompted Chemical Processing’s editors to take a closer look at salary to obtain a clearer picture of the chemical processing industry as it continues to evolve. The result is our first-ever salary survey, which has yielded some interesting insights into the workplace experience of you, our readers.

The good news
If you’re a chemical industry professional, your paycheck is relatively bountiful; the average median salary of a chemical industry professional according to our survey is about $85,000, with 1,205 industry participants nationwide responding (Table 1).

Table 1: The typical Chemical Processing professional

Salary $85,234
Year of education 16 (Bachelor's degree)
Field of study Chemical engineering
Years in chemcial industry 22
Job description Engineering
Industry Pharmaceuticals/industrial organic chemicals/engineering, construction and consulting
Age 47
Gender Male
Overall job satisfaction Satisfied

This is comparable to the median salary for a chemical engineer with six to eight years of experience on www.Salary.com, which reports a typical salary of $81,370. Chemical engineering is categorized on their Web site as a high-income-level position.

Whether you earn more or less depends upon a combination of many factors, some of which are becoming more important to those in the chemical industry than in the past.

Mo’ money
About 85% of the respondents received a raise during the past year (Figure 1). About 37% received a 1.6% to 3% raise; 26% were given a 3.1% to 4.5% boost in income. Those who work in the petroleum and refining sector earned the most, with an average salary of almost $91,000 (Figure 2). Engineering, construction and consulting employees have the next-highest incomes, with an average of a little more than $90,000 per year. Those who specialize in paints, varnishes and allied products have the lowest average income, earning a little more than $78,000 per year.

About two-thirds of respondents also received bonuses. The largest share of respondents, 17%, received a bonus of $2,500 to $5,000 (Figure 3).

Many respondents also enjoy a broad roster of benefits. Almost all (97%) have health insurance, and almost as many (93%) have a 401(k) plan. Dental and life insurance are nearly as widely available (Table 2).

Table 2: Benefits remain healthy
Benefit Percentage of respondents
Medical insurance 97
Dental insurance 87
Life insurance 87
Disability insurance 73
Long-term-care insurance 39
401(k) savings plan 93
Pension plan 64
Education cost reimbursement 61
Stock options 25
Profit sharing 27
Flextime 31
Telecommuting 5

Health-care blues
One of the factors eating away at take-home pay is the cost of health insurance. More and more of you are reporting that employers are requiring you to pay a larger portion of your insurance and health-care costs than in past years. This trend is tied to the year 2000 recession, during which sagging profits prompted many companies to pass on the rising cost of health care to employees. Although the economy is slowly recovering its health, employers are still requiring employees to shoulder the insurance cost burden, a trend that is not likely to reverse itself.

According to our survey, many in the industry worry about the bite health care costs are taking out of their paychecks. Although the majority of respondents received raises during the past year, insurance costs are eating away at their take-home pay. “Although benefits are provided [by the employer], the co-pay portion of these benefits has outpaced our annual raise, rendering a loss in income every year before inflation is even considered,” says one survey respondent. “It is very discouraging to continually give your all for the company and to feel not supported by upper management as they up our co-pays to keep profits up.”

Another says, “The amount I have to pay for medical insurance has increased significantly every year for the last five years.” A third respondent takes a look at the big picture by saying, “Benefits are rapidly declining, or the cost is increasing. Health-care costs need to be addressed before the average person can’t afford any health care, even with insurance.”

Your voice
Respondents were given the opportunity to comment anonymously about certain aspects of their jobs, and comment they did. Responses ran the gamut, from very optimistic about the future of the field to being quite gloomy about chemical industry prospects.

Many hinted at the changing nature of the chemical field; some perceive it to offer a less stable career path than in decades past. Some say it’s a field in which you must be a top performer to reap a high salary.

Be creative
One respondent tells chemical industry professionals to “be creative -- it ain’t the old days. Look to innovate using new trends that provide a very measurable value in the bottom line. Nobody can argue with hard, quantitative dollar results that are a result of creativity and hard work. Do not be fooled; upper-tier management demands better salaries for their very tangible top performers. Set goals and have a personal career strategy that benefits you and your company.” 

Piggy-backing on that suggestion is this one from another respondent: “Find a company niche and be proactive in promoting it. To most senior managers, the job market is full of commodity-type employees, not niche players.”

It is also becoming increasingly important to “understand the business side of things in addition to the technical side. Be flexible, and learn as much as possible. Become an expert, and think customer service,” a respondent says.

You reap what you sow, says another respondent. “The agricultural chemical industry has gone through a massive consolidation during the past five years, so the key job opportunities have become even scarcer. If you have a passion to work in this industry, then you have a shot of moving up and becoming a major player.” 

A changing field
Of course, the sector of the industry in which you’re employed plays a big part in your prospects. The pharmaceutical sector appears to be an area of growth, which can correlate with higher salaries and larger raises (Figure 2). “The pharmaceutical field has been challenging, rewarding and educational,” says one respondent. “Also, I have found some measure of job security in this field.”

Another says, “In my case, it’s the oil and gas field, i.e., upstream or E&P [exploration and production]. Now is a great time to join: Capital spending is up, companies are hiring engineers and scientists; the work is very challenging; and the pay and benefits are generally very good relative to most industries.”

More and more, though, some of the once-lucrative chemical industry jobs are moving overseas. “The traditional chemical and petrochemical industries are mature -- at least in the West,” says one respondent. “Unless you want to live in exotic places (not travel, live), get into biotech or materials engineering, e.g., nanotech materials. They are exciting, growing fast and are challenging fields.”

Translation: learn languages
Migrating overseas oftentimes presents an additional hurdle: talking the talk. “Learn to speak another language (e.g.: Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, French, German, Japanese) in addition to English,” a respondent says.

Language isn’t only important to those who work overseas, but can be a tool to help you earn a higher salary here in the United States. “Be sure to take composition and technical writing classes in college,” one respondent advises. “The ability to write effectively greatly improves your earning potential.”

High hopes
The chemical industry continues to be a good place to work, say our respondents. More than one-fifth are very satisfied with their jobs; nearly half say they are satisfied (Figure 4).

Some employees are once again feeling bold enough to reassess their compensatory situations and look for new job opportunities as the country emerges from the recession, however, lingering threats of layoffs and offshoring continue to dim opportunities for some (Figure 5).

Chemical industry professionals can always tweak their skills to boost their value to employers; the trick is getting your employer to pay you what you’re worth, which is another article in itself.

Money isn’t everything
Even if you’re not making the money you’d like right now, it’s important to remember that salary is just one component of job satisfaction. Almost 44% say challenging work is the main reason people give for being satisfied (Table 3).

Table 3: Satisfaction Survey
What makes your work satisfying? Percentage responses
Challenging work 44.0
Job security 13.5
Salary and benefits 17.5
Advancement opportunities 7.4
Recognition by employer and peers 12.6
Other 5.1

 “Salary has never been the most important issue in my career,” a respondent says.  “Interesting and challenging assignments have always been more important.”

Despite setbacks, many continue to be optimistic about the industry’s potential. “There are now, and likely will continue to be, many solid career opportunities for engineers in the chemical industry,” a respondent says.

“When I was younger (in my 20s), I was always apprehensive about the future and my opportunities,” another adds. “In hindsight, everything worked out and I can now look back on my career at its midpoint with a great deal of satisfaction.”

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