Better Times Beckon for Contract Engineers

The number of openings is rebounding in both the U.S. and Western Europe.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Data on shipments and capacity utilization provided by the American Chemistry Council, Arlington, Va., for CP's monthly Economic Snapshot clearly show that the U.S. chemical industry is faring better this year than last. This recovery is bolstering demand for contract engineers.

"The market [for contract engineers] in the U.S. is certainly expanding, but this is relative to the economic downturn of 2009. The recession hit the whole recruitment industry hard, so the baseline from then was pretty rough," says Tim McAward, a vice president at Kelly Engineering Resources, Troy, Mich., a firm that places engineers into contract and permanent positions. "I'd say demand for contract engineers is now about the same as in 2008, which was a very good year in terms of staffing. 2009 was a disaster and it was good to turn over the calendar on that." Much of the demand centers on three-to-four month contracts that often focus on feasibility studies, he adds.

"In 2010 we've seen solid growth from our customers for contract staffing. The market is still soft for full-time engineering work. Engineering companies need talent and resources but are very skittish about an upturn."

The good news for contract engineers working in chemical processing is that the job situation is holding up. "Jobs are pretty secure in the chemical industry, from basic chemicals to other sectors. We are so heavily dependent on oil in the U.S. that this will continue to be a crucial sector well into the future."

Wages are holding up now, too, McAward says, with a mean of $43.22/hr for chemical engineers working as contract engineers. However, this mean masks quite a sizeable range: from the mid-$20s to the low $70s per hour.

"There was a period of time where some chemical sectors did go after rates, but most of the focus has been on supplemental benefits such as retirement and health care. However, as the economy expands, the employers will have to quickly turn these benefits back on because the availability of talent is very tight."

Another important sector for contract chemical engineers is pharmaceuticals. This market, he says, isn't growing as robustly as it has in the past. "It's okay but there are some major challenges with product recalls."

An added challenge is the ongoing rationalization of the pharmaceutical industry. He cites as a typical example the acquisition by Abbott Laboratories, Abbott Park, Ill., of Belgium's Solvay Pharmaceuticals in February, which resulted in a planned cutback of 3,000 jobs.

"This could prove very helpful for us in terms of contract engineering expertise coming onto the market. But people are still very reluctant to up and move [to new locations]," he adds.

McAward speaks positively about two other sectors that are major employers of contract chemical engineers: "In terms of food and beverages, these industries are a good place to be as most of them have kept up performance during the recession."

One sector to watch is nuclear, which is undergoing a revival in the United States. Policy changes by the federal government are helping to pave the way for significant growth in nuclear capacity, says the World Nuclear Association (WNA), London. "Following a 30-year period in which few new reactors were built, it is expected that four-to-six new units may come on line by 2018… After 20 years of steady decline, government R&D funding for nuclear energy is being revived with the objective of rebuilding U.S. leadership in nuclear technology," notes the WNA.

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