The prospects for the American chemical industry seem better than they have been for quite a while, as last month’s cover story, “U.S. Chemicals: The Luster Returns,” highlighted. Indeed, the article’s author, Thomas Kevin Swift, chief economist of the American Chemistry Council, forecasts that by 2019 the industry will post record trade surpluses.
However, lack of an adequate number of technical professionals such as chemical engineers could blunt longer-term prospects. The growing number of baby boomers who are retiring is exacerbating the situation.
Getting children interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education certainly isn’t a new challenge. For instance, more than six years ago I urged readers to “Convince a Child to Explore Engineering.”
And, indeed, many efforts to alert kids to interesting and lucrative STEM-related careers are underway. For example, shortly after I wrote that editorial, I wrote another, “Chemical Engineers Crow,” about the launch of a website, chemicalengineering.org, by the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, New York City, that highlights the contributions of chemical engineers. Titled “Chemical Engineers in Action — Innovation at Work,” it allows children to explore six key areas in which chemical engineers make a difference. (Unfortunately, the content on that site apparently hasn’t been updated since the 2009 launch.)
Such initiatives usually don’t get the visibility they deserve. So, I was surprised and delighted to recently see a series of ExxonMobil advertisements on television that promote engineering and science careers. If you missed these ads, you can view them at www.youtube.com/user/ExxonMobil.
As Ken Cohen, vice president of public and government affairs for ExxonMobil, explained in a blog posting in late September: “America has a problem: Not enough U.S. students are pursuing engineering careers.
“…There simply are not enough applicants with adequate skills to fill many of the most promising positions available in the 21st century. This lack of skills is especially acute in jobs that increasingly rely on science, technology, engineering and math.
“This set of circumstances is worrisome for science-based companies like ExxonMobil, of course. But more broadly it is troubling for America’s future competitiveness in the global economy.
“To help address this predicament, ExxonMobil has launched a nationwide initiative seeking to inspire the next generation of engineers. Our ‘Be an Engineer’ campaign aims to highlight the meaningful contributions that engineers make to the world, as well as provide resources to assist young people interested in pursuing the profession.
“…I am confident that the more that young people actually learn what engineers do and accomplish for society, the more they will be drawn to pursuing careers in that direction.”
Besides the television ads, ExxonMobil has launched a website, www.beanengineer.com, that covers reasons to be an engineer, the types of engineering, as well as feats of engineering. The site also highlights a diverse group of nearly two dozen engineers, ranging from a research specialist at ExxonMobil to the chief technology officer at Xerox to the director of the Applied Biodynamics Laboratory at Boston University. Moreover, it provides engineering-related news items and even includes information on worthwhile courses to take in high school and engineering-related programs for students.
We all should applaud ExxonMobil for its high-visibility efforts to get more children interested in engineering.
MARK ROSENZWEIG is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief and resident chemical engineer. You can email him at email@example.com