Chemical Engineers March On

The road is uneven and includes geographic and demographic turns.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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All these new projects, technologies and services rely on chemical engineers’ skills.
“The chemical engineering discipline finds its way into many positions within the company, from traditional engineering activities, right through to commercial and sales. So it’s a very important discipline for us,” says Robin Lysek, central staffing manager. Management certainly doesn’t require convincing — the current chairman and his predecessor are chemical engineers and both came up through the company’s career development program.

“The basic skills we need as a company are still the same, for example heat and mass transfer, fluid flow and unit operations — skills that chemical engineers have. We are also finding that new graduates are very current with their knowledge, for example of the carbon dioxide issue, and can adapt very quickly to the technological challenges of such issues — which aligns them with our business strategy,” notes O’Reilly.

However, like many other companies, Air Products is facing a demographic headache as veteran technical staff approach retirement. So the company is working hard on succession planning, mentoring and communication sessions to make sure that it doesn’t lose these engineers’ valuable knowledge.

Effectively transferring such information to new engineers requires some adjustments. “You have to understand how the younger ones want to absorb that knowledge. They want everything electronically, so we are looking into different media technologies, for example trying to learn from YouTube/iPod type applications,” says O’Reilly.

“We need to continue to feed our talent pipeline with new chemical engineering graduates and we have plans in place to ensure that the right individuals with the right skills are here at the right time,” adds Lysek.

A Model Response
Process optimization and software services specialist AspenTech, Burlington, Mass., focuses a lot of effort on helping customers replicate real-world conditions in models. However, simulation isn’t the answer for one real-world issue it faces — engineering supply and demand. Nearly half of its 1,400 employees are chemical engineers, all with postgraduate degrees.
“Across our customer base, the feedback is always that there is a shortage of engineers. So it’s definitely a good time for chemical engineers, no question,” says Vikas Dhole, the company’s vice president of engineering product management and a chemical engineer.

“Clearly oil and gas and upstream operations enjoy most capital investment now, while energy is important, too. This, in turn, creates a positive impact elsewhere, for example with LNG and emerging sectors such as coal gasification and tar sands. Despite the fall in oil price, there’s still lots of activity especially in the Middle East, Brazil, China and India,” he adds, noting that a majority of the company’s business now is outside the U.S., with about 30–35% in Europe/Middle East/Africa and 20% to 25% in Asia/Pacific.

AspenTech typifies the trend of moving to where the work is. The company decided to open a center of excellence (COE) for quality assurance in Shanghai; it joins the company’s existing COEs for software development in Burlington, and manufacturing and supply chain R&D in Houston.

“Shanghai has been very successful and is growing rapidly. We also have field resources across the globe in nearly 40 different offices. These include technical consultants, customer support and training, and grow in line with new projects as they develop in different regions,” he says.

Dhole also notes that operating companies like Dow and DuPont have opened engineering centers in China, India and Southeast Asia. “This is a new thing: five years ago it would have been outsourced to a local company. Now the process engineering is actually being executed there. The benefit here is the access to engineering talent — and this will change the dynamics of process engineering execution in the future. For us, it’s a growth opportunity and is definitely a dynamic that the chemical engineering community needs to be aware of.”

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