Despite a 7% decline in overall applications to study at U.K. universities this year, chemical engineering has posted a 12% rise.
New figures published in July by the Universities & Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), Cheltenham, U.K., reported 13,520 applications to study chemical engineering, compared to 12,061 last year. Mechanical engineering posted a slight rise, 4%, while the biggest loser was civil engineering, down 12%.
The number of student applications for chemical engineering has ballooned from 5,058 in 2002 to 13,520 this year, a hike of 167%. At the same time, universities have increased the number of student places by 116%, from 979 to 2,117.
Chemical engineering rates as the best paid of the U.K. engineering disciplines — 2011 graduates earn a median starting salary of £28,000/year ($43,300/year). Only medicine and dentistry pay graduates more.
"It's another record-breaking year for chemical engineering with more and more students identifying it as career choice that promises a wide range of career options and outstanding earning potential," notes Matt Stalker, communications officer with the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), Rugby, U.K. IChemE is a global professional membership organization for people with an interest in and experience of chemical engineering. (It recently launched an awards program specifically for North America. See: "Recognize the Wider Impact of Recognition".)
Stalker adds: "It wasn't so long ago that the number of student applications to study subjects like civil engineering or chemistry were three times that of chemical engineering but that gap is closing. There are a range of factors that have helped to fuel the interest in chemical engineering, but we know that our 'whynotchemeng' campaign has been key."
Launched in 2002 to tackle a shortage of students applying to study chemical engineering, whynotchemeng helps young people find out more about the discipline and its potential career opportunities. An IChemE survey last year found that the campaign had influenced one in four new university students.
To influence the remaining three quarters, the organization has launched a three-pronged campaign. The first focuses on developing its social media strategy — using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to increase direct contact with young people. The second involves boosting the number of schools participating in the scheme. The third centers on the creation of new resources for schools, including a video project that's already well into the planning stage.
Stalker says that while application figure rises are good news, further capacity at U.K. universities remains key: "It's important that university course capacity grows hand-in-hand with this increased interest so new courses in places like Bradford, Hull and Westminster have been important, along with the continued expansion of established departments."
In September, for example, the University of Hull, Hull, U.K., will offer undergraduates the option to study toward a masters degree in chemical engineering, to complement the existing foundation degree. The development of the new degree courses come from a collaboration between the departments of engineering and chemistry.
The Humber region has one of the highest concentrations of chemical processing companies in the U.K. and studying chemical engineering at the university is expected to be a popular choice for the next generation of engineers.
Hull anticipates students in the program also will have access to the nearby Centre for the Assessment of Technical Competency, www.catch-uk.org, Stallingborough, U.K. The £8-million ($12-million) industry-led center provides the opportunity to experience life as a chemical engineer, with access to realistic equipment, physical environment and operating procedures — a factor that will add to the employability of students once they graduate.
In the U.S., it's a similar story with chemical engineering majors still among the most sought-after by industry. According to the 2011 summer survey carried out by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, Bethlehem, Pa., new U.S. chemical engineering graduates are the second-best paid in the country. The survey shows that they received an average starting salary offer of $65,618. This figure rises to $76,043 when offers from just petroleum and coal products manufacturers are considered. Petroleum engineers topped the list, with an average starting salary of $80,849. In fact, engineers took the top four slots in the U.S. pay stakes, with computer engineering coming third and mining and mineral engineering fourth.
SEÁN OTTEWELL is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.