Preparing Tomorrow's Chemical Engineers Today

Nov. 15, 2002

Back in school, I had a general sense of what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was simple: I liked to read and write, so I figured I could make a go of it in publishing. However, at the time, I had no clear idea about what an editor did all day or even how a magazine was published. My education could have benefited from some practical real world exposure early on.

Fortunately for some prospective chemical engineers, the real world has come knocking. A few recent initiatives are seeking out students at the high school and college levels to fill the growing number of openings at chemical facilities.

It is no secret that many chemical engineers are in their late 40s and 50s. As more and more of these engineers look forward to retirement, fewer fresh faces are entering the field. Industry has sounded a warning bell to offset the eventual employee shortage.

A new chemical processing program at Saginaw Career Complex in Saginaw, Mich., is preparing 11th and 12th graders to become chemical-processing operators or technicians by the time they graduate from high school. Following graduation, students can move on directly to chemical facilities or can transfer earned credits toward a two-year associate's degree in chemical processing at a neighboring community college.

Developed in partnership with Dow Corning and the Dow Chemical Co., the program teaches students to operate chemical processing equipment used to make a variety of products. The program incorporates a fully equipped "mini" chemical processing laboratory, the only one of its kind in the state. Most importantly, students must be able to demonstrate their knowledge in the labs, where they are evaluated on how they perform particular operations.

At the college level, Yale chemistry Professor Alanna Schepartz received a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to enrich undergraduate education in chemistry by creating courses that expose students to the creativity of cutting-edge research earlier in their college careers.

"Most undergraduates are seniors by the time they encounter the thrill of conducting or even reading about current, pioneering research," Schepartz says. "They are turned off by slogging through three years of discoveries that are decades or centuries old. By that time, many are committed to other careers and lost forever from scientific enterprise."

Louisiana's Baton Rouge Community College also is taking measures to encourage its chemical engineering students to remain dedicated to their field. The college recently opened a new $1 million laboratory that will allow students to simulate many basic plant processes. Although students have access to some real-life processes through a required internship commitment, most classroom study has been relegated to textbooks.

Traditionally, many chemical firms have looked to fill their ranks through college-campus recruiting. However, your plant might want to get involved much earlier in the process to ensure the availability of qualified candidates to meet future needs.

What is your plant doing to alleviate the staffing pinch? Drop me an e-mail at [email protected].



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