In good times, demand for products is high and the future looks bright. In bad times, demand falls, plants have too much capacity, and the future looks bleak.
Exactly where on that economic cycle we are at any given moment is anyones guess, but some reports on recruitment at the beginning of the year suggest better times might lie ahead. Chemical giants Dow and DuPont both were planning on at least maintaining their level of hiring of new graduates through 2006. There are specific business segments that are experiencing significant growth, said Sarah Kok, workforce planning specialist for Dow, and they will need engineers to support that.
Nevertheless, we mustnt forget that the chemical industry no longer dominates and drives the employment outlook for new chemical engineering graduates the way it once did. However, major employers in other key sectors such as oil and gas also are still recruiting at reasonable levels. BP, for instance, was looking for 30% more chemical engineering graduates this year than last, because of increased needs in our exploration and production sector, according to Susan Knox Wilson, recruitment marketing manager for BP America, Houston, Texas.
Meanwhile, the aging of the baby boomer generation those born between 1946 and the early 1960s is posing additional staffing challenges to all industry. As boomers now rapidly approach retirement, companies must grapple not only with replacing them, but coping with the loss of their experience.
A supply shortfall?
These snapshots of the recruitment scene, encouraging though they might be to new graduates, are only one side of the supply/demand equation, however. The other side can be seen in a recent survey of CEOs of some of the fastest-growing science and technology companies in the U.S. Commissioned by Bayer. It highlighted the executives concern over the potential shortfall in the number of scientists and engineers coming out of universities (see CP, June).
A similar concern exists about technologists with advanced degrees. We are seeing an unprecedented demand versus supply equation, says Teresa Carroll, vice president of Kelly Engineering Resources, a unit of global staffing provider Kelly Services, Troy, Mich. Anyone with an advanced engineering degree and experience is going to have more than one job opportunity. Right now in oil and gas we just cant find enough people.
Our customers generally are looking for more than just a degree. They look for soft skills, like managing a project or leading a team, she says, and many want years of experience in addition to those skills. But now we have more demand than supply, its very hard to find engineers that meet all those requirements. The longer positions remain open the more likely it is our customers will start looking at [new] college graduates.
But is this concern about a future shortfall in graduates really justified? The last Engineering Income and Salary Survey, sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), Alexandria, Va., would suggest not at least if money is the main motivation for students opting for engineering. At an average salary of just more than $46,000 in their first year of employment, entry-level engineers earn more than those entering many other professions. Fledgling chemical engineers earn even more, with average offers in 2005 topping $54,000, according to last years salary survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, Bethlehem, Pa.
Weve heard the horror stories about a potential shortage of U.S. engineering graduates, due in part to a perceived decline of job opportunities, says Al Gray, NSPE executive director, but the truth is that engineering continues to be a viable and in-demand profession, and engineering graduates can expect good starting salaries and job opportunities well into the future.
Certainly the current situation for experienced engineers bears this out, judging by the recent CP Salary Survey (April). It drew responses from a variety of technical professionals in the chemical industry, with the majority reporting they generally were happy with salary, benefits and job fulfilment. Almost half of those taking part were chemical engineers. The average respondent was a 47-year-old male with a BS in chemical engineering, who is earning $89,690/yr.
All that paints a relatively rosy picture for any young person contemplating a career in engineering. However, are new graduates really equipped to seize these opportunities? In a recent poll of CP readers, nearly two-thirds of respondents were less than impressed with how well todays new engineering graduates are prepared for a career in the chemical industry. The quality, not quantity, of graduate engineers would appear to be the concern here.
The real world
While traditionally many chemical engineers joined chemical companies or refining and petrochemical firms, newcomers to the profession today have a far wider field of opportunities to go after, as highlighted in a survey conducted a couple of years ago by the World Chemical Engineering Council, Frankfurt, Germany. It sought to find out how well a group of over 2,000 young chemical engineers from around the world felt they had been prepared for the workplace or, as the results make clear, workplaces. Although more than half of the respondents worked in the traditional industries, answers came from 27 different industry sectors that now employ chemical engineers (Figure 1).