Good News, Bad News: Chemical Engineering Employment in Flux

June 1, 2004

In times of transition, it is difficult to predict when the tumult will end. Such is the case in the chemical industry, which along with many other related industries, has shed jobs and left many chemical engineers bemused by numerous changes.

There is reason for some optimism among job seekers in the industry — companies have begun to hire again — but the slight surge of hope is tempered by the outsourcing of jobs to workers in other countries, as well as the pains caused by a shrinking U.S. chemical industry.

Young engineers for hire

One factor that has become increasingly important in securing employment is the number of years of experience a candidate has in the industry. "I’ve seen a pickup in the guts of chemical manufacturing," says Billy Price, a recruiter and owner of Engineering Profiles, Pensacola, Fla. He says there is demand for chemical engineers who have three to seven years of experience. "It’s gotten so lean because of cost constraints that they’re [employers] working folks to death by adding more responsibility," he says. But many companies have realized that they can’t continue to function with such pared-down staffs, and have begun to hire again. "That to me is more of a sign that things are coming back," Price says.

This is not necessarily good news for those who have several decades of experience and who are used to commanding larger salaries than those with just a few years of experience. Price says some companies have unspoken age requirements. "When you refer candidates that are qualified and they pass on them, that’s an indication," he says.

The hope is that the economy will boost chemical company revenues, creating a more favorable hiring situation for those with decades of experience, as well as the newbies.

That doesn’t mean that the job market will rebound to the prosperous levels of the late 1990s any time soon. "Companies are being more selective," Price says. "They have the luxury of a large labor pool and they are taking their time and waiting for the right candidate — it’s frustrating." Some companies are taking up to a year to fill a position. "Companies are not willing to commit," he says. "They need the help, but they’ll drag it [the hiring process] on for a year." But, he has noticed a slight increase in urgency compared to just four to five months ago. "You can tell by the way companies respond — there has been a quickening of the pace," he says.

On campus

Recruitment of young chemical engineers from college campuses has shown a slight rebound as well. Although Price doesn’t dabble in placement of recent college graduates, he keeps in touch with students who have had above-average academic careers. "Many grads are going back to school because they can’t find a job," he says.

But if you happen to be one of those fortunate ones who has laid a path to gainful employment right out of college, the news is good: salaries are on the rise, albeit slightly. Ernest Walker, assistant director of career services for Georgia Tech in Atlanta, says chemical engineering grads are making more money now than in spring 2002. The average salary recorded by the school that year was $48,447, compared to the $52,363 that students reported in spring 2003. Although Georgia Tech did not have figures for master’s-level graduates, its Ph.D. graduates were making more money as well: $85,000 in spring 2003 versus an average of $80,000 in spring 2002.

However, the salary increase revelations are tempered by a decrease in the number of jobs being offered to grads. The school reported its students were offered and accepted 51 jobs in 2002, but there were just 40 in 2003. "It’s more difficult now," Walker says. "For those students who do a good job search, they’re not getting the three to four offers we were seeing in the 1990s. Companies are not recruiting in the numbers that they did in the past."

Big on biotech

Despite the economy, students haven’t wavered from pursuing chemical engineering degrees. "Engineering will always be a top industry [for education] at Georgia Tech," Walker says. He also highlights increased enrollment in the school’s bioengineering program. "It’s always a good sign for us," he says.

In the Midwest, John Archambault, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s cooperative education and internship program, says the market for chemical engineers has remained fairly solid throughout the economic downturn. "Enrollment is even," he says, and the school’s biotech program has grown. "Everything’s taking off in biotech," he adds.

However, he concurs that hiring for new grads is not as strong as it once was. "The numbers have dropped, but not significantly," he says. "Companies are not hiring in the numbers that they have in the past." Of the 95% of undergraduates who registered with the office in 2003, 58% were offered and accepted employment; 21% were still seeking employment; and 22% had opted to go to grad school. "The numbers are very reflective of what’s happening across the country," Archambault says. "But we’re starting to see hiring increase."

Salaries steady

Of those University of Wisconsin-Madison students who were offered jobs in 2003, their salaries were on par with those at Georgia Tech. The average salary for a newly minted chemical engineer is about $51,000. Ph.D.s average about $81,000 per year.

Robert Drexler, a recruiter and owner of Robert Drexler Associates Inc. in Hackensack, N.J., says the figures provided by universities for starting salaries in the chemical engineering field match what he is seeing: new grads average about $52,000 to $55,000 per year. "Starting pay is steady," he says, "But the number of people being recruited is down."

Fishing for pharma

While the petrochemical industry is quiet on the recruitment and hiring front, Drexler says the pharmaceutical industry is seeing more activity. "Capital expenditure is up in pharmaceutical," he says. "I believe there is more life in it." Jobs in the pharmaceutical industry are proliferating in New Jersey, North and South Carolina, and Massachusetts, among other states with a growing pharmaceutical presence, such as Florida. "We [the United States] are still the world capital of pharmaceuticals," he explains.

This growing industry segment provides new employment avenues for those in the chemical industry who are having trouble finding work. "I see companies disappearing in the chemical processing field," Drexler says. "People have to be more willing to change jobs." Drexler is one of those who is moving in a new direction by working with Technip BioPharm Inc. in Liberty Corner, N.J., an engineering company serving the pharmaceutical industry.

But there are other segments to plumb for jobs besides the chemical processing and pharmaceutical industries. Drexler sees opportunity in the food processing industry, if chemical engineers are willing to make the switch.

Or, job seekers can wait it out and see if new openings develop in their chosen industry. "The nature of chemical engineering is that it’s cyclical," Drexler says. "A lot of the companies are down, but they won’t stay there forever."

Price agrees. "If what I am seeing now is any indication, it will go up."

But job seekers have to take into account this reality: Many chemical engineering companies are not expanding, nor are they building new plants. "We’re hurting a bit," Price says. "The chemical business is shrinking. A lot of companies in the United States won’t be able to compete within a few years. There is a lot of foreign competition."

By Lisa Greenberg, managing editor

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