Workforce 2050: Charting a Course for the Future

Dec. 7, 2011
Dow Chemical Executive Katie Hunt encourages you to dream big when you envision the world in 2050.

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Madame Marie Curie winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the U.N. declared 2011 the International Year of Chemistry (IYC). Overall, this year was intended to further public appreciation of chemistry and, more specifically, highlight the important role of women in science. As we count down the final days of 2011, it's time to look back and reflect – but, more importantly, to look ahead and dream. At the IYC closing events in Brussels, young leaders from across the chemical industry gathered together to imagine the world in 2050   – and imagine they did. Their vision included a cleaner, greener, healthier world transformed by chemistry solutions, a world where whole economies were able to meet the growing needs of their people because of chemistry. What does this future look like for women in science?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back for a moment . . . back to when I came home from Smith on my first college break. I remember telling my dad (a chemist himself) that I had declared chemistry as my major. He was shocked and responded, "Chemistry is no place for a woman! Men are just not ready for women in the lab." I told him: "Too late, Dad, you should have told me that sooner. You made me love chemistry and so I'm in it for the long haul!"


Clearly, a lot has changed for women in chemistry since I came home from college in 1974. Women, who today fill nearly 50% of the workforce (i), are encouraged to pursue science and a variety of professions. Even more will change for women in chemistry in the future. Growth in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering,& Math) jobs has been three times greater than that of non-STEM jobs over the last 10 years; over the next decade, STEM occupations will grow by 17% compared with 9.8-percent growth for others.

What does this mean for the chemistry professional of the future? O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y! But what is the price of that opportunity? In a global economic recession, are women doing whatever it takes to get a job and whatever it takes to get that job done -- even at the expense of their personal health and happiness?

In a world where the boundaries between work and life are being erased by global teams and 24/7 communication technologies, what we need is a redirect; a redirect from work-life balance to work-life effectiveness (ii). Balance implies constant trade-offs where what employers hear is "more flex and less work." With work-life effectiveness, we ask leaders to focus on articulating the "what" – what are we working toward - putting the power of the "how" back into the hands of the employee. If we can do this, we will create a workplace that leverages our skills and abilities to create an unbounded, collaborative, global community: a community where flexibility and individual initiative are not just buzz words, but are respected and valued.

This vision requires leadership. To effect this change, we need the confidence to dream and to lead in new directions. Each of you has the opportunity to lead transformational change in your own roles, in your own ways, every day. You just need the confidence to do it. And you'll have confidence if you have three things: competency, passion, and alignment between your objectives and those of your organization (iii). Two-out-of-three just won't cut it. If you have passion and alignment without competency, you're a rookie. If you have competency and passion without alignment, you've got a hobby. If you have competency and alignment without passion, you've got a chore. With all three – you're changing the game. Cultivate your skills, follow your passion and develop creative ways for your organization to see that your vision matches their vision. It's not always going to be easy, but it will produce results. I promise.

This vision requires creativity. When I had my son, I had to be off my feet. At one of our leadership meetings, my boss said something extraordinary at the time: "You can work from home." Everyone was aghast; how were we going to do that? But he was confident that collectively, we could figure it out. I was given a computer at home with access to our mainframe and a cordless phone, which was no small feat 20 years ago. We were creative and we had fun making work "work."

This vision requires boldness. You need to articulate what you need. My mother always referenced the Bible, "Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened unto you." In graduate school, my advisor said, "You don't ask, you don't get." A former manager once told me, "Katie, if I'm always saying yes, you are just not asking for enough." One day I entered his office with a big smile on my face; he said, "So, you think you have it; let's hear it." I said, "I want your job." He said, "Finally! My wife has been waiting for you to get to this!" Progress, toward achieving your desired/shared goals, starts with being bold enough to articulate what you truly need to be successful, not just what you want.

This vision requires reinventing yourself. Jobs in chemistry today are different than 10-20 years ago. It is no longer enough to simply stand at a bench and do "benchwork." As chemistry professionals we are required to interact, communicate, and collaborate in a digital, international world, addressing world challenges holistically and systematically.

As future leaders in chemistry it will not be enough to be "just a scientist". You must be entrepreneurs in the full sense of the word. You must "sell" your ideas, navigate an increasingly complex world of global intellectual property, and effectively partner across continents and around the world. Learning won't stop with your degrees – whether undergraduate or graduate or postgraduate - you will continually need to reinvent yourselves. In chemistry today, and into the future, you will need to seek out education from "K through grey" – from kindergarten through your senior years.

Change is afoot. Georgia Institute of Technology is stepping up to meet the demands of a global marketplace with its TI:GER program (Technological Innovation: Generating Economic Results) which teaches teams of future Ph.D., MBA, and law students to address technology entrepreneurship from ideation and product development through to commercialization and marketing. The NSF is stepping up with its new 10-year Career- Life Balance Initiative to allow individuals to take time off to attend to family responsibilities without jeopardizing funding awards. Many companies, including my own, help employees navigate the pressures of an increasingly "24/7" work week by developing flexible and creative approaches to getting work done.

In closing, as you envision the world in 2050, dream and dream big. Imagine harnessing the power of chemistry to create a cleaner, greener, healthier world…. Now it's time to chart your course to this future.


U.S. Commerce Department's Economics and Statistics Administration

ii I would like to acknowledge Darlene MacKinnon, director of diversity & inclusion at Dow Chemical, for engaging discussions and marvelous insights on the difference between work-life balance and work-life effectiveness.

iii Modified from the ACS Leadership Development System Extraordinary Leaders' Course.

Catherine T. "Katie" Hunt, Ph.D., is director, Innovation Sourcing and Sustainable Technologies, at The Dow Chemical Company and 2007 President of the American Chemical Society.  Her bimonthly column appears exclusively on ChemicalProcessing.com. Follow her on Twitter @KatieChemist.

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