Chemical Engineers March On

The road is uneven and includes geographic and demographic turns.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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In an echo of what’s being seen in the U.S., the importance of such opportunities already is beginning to bear fruit for the U.K.’s recruitment sector.

“Up until recently, oil and gas has been a very, very strong sector for recruitment,” says Lee Knowles, director with recruitment company NES U.K., Newcastle Upon Tyne, near the heart of Britain’s chemical manufacturing region. “This was driven by the huge projects announced on the back of the high oil price. A lot of the design work for these projects came into contracting companies in the U.K. ... You have to remember that a big oil and gas project these days can be worth £500 million [around $750 million] and need up to 200 design engineers. A big pharma project, on the other hand, might be worth £75m [about $115 million] and only need 20 chemical engineers at its peak,” explains Knowles, who is responsible for the company’s specialist chemical engineering and validation recruitment sector.

He describes the pharmaceutical market as “not too clever just now,” noting that big employers such as GSK and Novartis are cutting back on primary manufacturing. In addition, general chemical manufacturing remains poor, with overseas competition leading to the closure of a host of well-known batch and fine chemical companies in the Leeds and Bradford regions of Northern England.

On the other hand, NES is seeing increasing demand for nuclear engineers, many of whom typically have chemical engineering backgrounds. This follows the January invitation by the U.K. government for energy companies to bring forward plans to build and operate new nuclear power stations as part of the country’s strategy to ensure a secure, diverse and low-carbon energy mix.

The importance of this was emphasized in mid-November when Babcock International, London, reported a 30% increase in first-half profits; this included revenues of more than £54 million [about $82 million] from its nuclear business — up 50%. “Five years from now, we are talking big design time on a new generation of stations, so you could see our current business double,” said chief executive Peter Rogers.

Meanwhile, Knowles describes the biofuels situation as mixed, with a number of companies pushing ahead with projects while others are biding their time to see how government responds to the food/fuel debate on the use of crops. “On the other hand, the interest in biofuels has driven demand for agrochemicals, so companies such as Bayer and Syngenta are doing very well because of the demand for their products,” he notes.

Knowles also points to a dramatic change in the role of chemical engineering contractors. “Up to 12 months ago we had the situation where four or five big companies were winning huge contracts in the oil sector. Traditionally, experienced contractors have been used to even out demand spikes, but this one was massive. So all sorts of people were taken on as contractors who might not have been years ago: they were drawing from nuclear, pharma and water management, which rarely happened in the past.”

This meant that a lot of people were going into contracting much earlier in their careers, he explains. “So now we are finding that these contractors are coming back on the market with only two, three or four years experience, which isn’t really enough for the major employers. So they are now searching for permanent jobs again.”

Overall, 2008 was NES’s best year ever for permanent employment. “Demand is still high, especially as companies are now looking at more strategic employment, which means more permanent staff are being taken on.”

Seán Ottewell is Editor at Large for Chemical Processing. You can e-mail him at

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