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Volume 84 Issue 45 | pp. 36-41
Issue Date: November 6, 2006

Better Job Climate For New Graduates

For chemists, hiring in pharma picks up, and chemical engineers continue to be in high demand
Department: Career & Employment | Collection: Economy
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Credit: istockphoto

For the first time since 2001, chemical scientists entering the job market have reason to be optimistic, albeit cautiously. The chemical industry's economic fortunes seem to have improved, and in some cases, the turnaround is translating into more employment opportunities. Coming as the recruiting season is just ramping up, these conditions bode well for job seekers.

C&EN spoke with officers, human-resources personnel, and recruiters at nine companies about their hiring plans and what they see on the employment horizon. C&EN also talked to professors in chemistry departments whose Ph.D. students and postdocs are looking for jobs.

Most industry recruiters of chemists contacted by C&EN are placing a premium on strong synthetic organic skills and on biology-related experience, while chemical engineers are in high demand in the petrochemical industry. Most university representatives tell C&EN that demand for their Ph.D.s and postdocs this year appears higher than last year's, and most of their students have been successful in finding industrial and postdoc jobs.

Hector D. Abruña, chairman of the chemistry department at Cornell University, notes, "There is a major hiring push by some of our recruiting companies, compared with 2003, 2004, or 2005, when the demand remained relatively steady."

Michael P. Doyle, professor and chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland (UMD), College Park, says his Ph.D.s are in as much demand this year as they were last year. However, "job searches are taking longer because there are fewer postdoc positions available due to the decrease in federal funding," he says. "Responses from companies are slower and fewer." Doyle reports that most of last year's students found the job they were looking for, but not everyone did.

"I hear people complaining about grant support but not about jobs," says David Lynn, chairman of the department of chemistry at Emory University, Atlanta.

And at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, chemistry department head Steve Zimmerman says, "Getting a job doesn't seem to have been a serious problem for our graduates from what we've heard, and the undergrads who are going to grad school have gotten into the schools they wanted to attend." He also notes an increase in demand for Illinois' Ph.D.s and postdocs, which appears to be on a strong, upward swing.

"The students who went into the recruiting season with work experience, nontechnical skills"—such as communication skills, which are highly valued by employers—"and a solid academic background were readily placed," Zimmerman says.

At Illinois, "large pharma companies were some of the first to come through this year, trying to get a jump on our best and brightest," Zimmerman says. "We've also seen a few companies come back that had not been here in the past two years."

Many newly minted Ph.D.s go directly into the pharmaceutical industry, which is the largest employer of chemists and biochemists. The industry is tackling challenges on many fronts, including improving productivity through innovation and efficiency and regaining public approval. The industry's defense of high drug prices as necessary to support the risks of bringing a drug to market is not resonating with consumers concerned about the high costs of prescription drugs and health care (C&EN, June 19, page 30).

"The overall market appears to be somewhat stronger this year than in previous years," observes Brian S. Bronk, director of neurosciences medicinal chemistry and chair of Ph.D. recruiting in the U.S. for Pfizer Global R&D. "Pfizer has recently completed key components of its restructuring. We're now in a position to hire under a new business model," he says.

"We set out to fill openings at the Ph.D. level across most of our U.S. sites," he continues, "and although the final number of positions remains fluid, we expect to identify highly qualified candidates for any positions we want to fill. I think our situation reflects the overall industry. Extended periods of hiring driven by growth may be behind us, but I expect a sustained level of recruiting in the future."

Bronk says Pfizer is currently recruiting candidates at all degree levels, including new graduates and those with previous experience. Synthetic organic chemistry continues to be the most important field, but computational chemistry is a growing need. He predicts that candidates with experience in both areas will be in high demand across the pharmaceutical sector.

Reports from other pharmaceutical representatives this year are similarly positive. "Things look somewhat better this year than last year and significantly better than two years ago," says Hans Maag, vice president of chemistry for Roche Palo Alto. There is a "consistent need in pharma to have a large pool of really good synthetic organic chemists. Certainly, the interest is there from the companies, and they feel it's going to be a pretty decent recruiting year."

Specifically, Roche Palo Alto is focusing its recruiting again this year on both the medicinal and process chemistry groups. According to Maag, the company is hiring with the expectation of limited workforce growth: "We have not had much turnover in chemistry at Roche Palo Alto and are basically in a position to hire on a consistent, but not very high, level." He adds that the company tends to be insulated from the larger economic climate and is more affected by what happens within the pharmaceutical industry.

William F. Carroll, ACS immediate past-president and vice president at Occidental Chemical, reports that, for the first time in several years, the company will be visiting a small number of campuses in 2007 to recruit B.S. and M.S. chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineers.

"OxyChem's recruiting needs are indicative of a changing workforce within the chemical industry as a whole," he says. "As the baby boom generation reaches retirement age, the workforce in the chemical industry is going through a transformation to a new generation." Carroll adds that the improvement in the business climate since 2005 has added urgency to OxyChem's recruiting needs, along with the need to transfer knowledge from today's managerial and technical leaders to tomorrow's.

Particularly, OxyChem is looking for motivated graduates with demonstrated technical aptitude and good communication and interpersonal skills. Students who supplement their academic performance with internship or co-op experience are in demand, Carroll says.

Specialty chemicals producer Rohm and Haas also predicts a good recruiting season, says Jennifer Petoff, manager of technical recruiting and university relations. "We asked hiring managers to forecast their needs for 2007," and the number of potential openings this year is higher than that of last year, which was a banner year, she says. "Last year, the company hired approximately 20 Ph.D.s through campus recruiting."

It's important to Rohm and Haas to bring in new talent regardless of what the market is doing, Petoff says, although it may recruit fewer scientists when the economy slows. Petoff is actively looking for Ph.D. chemists, chemical engineers, and materials scientists.

Rohm and Haas wants people with backgrounds in polymer chemistry as well as in the traditional subdisciplines of chemistry. It is particularly seeking scientists with chemistry and some biological experience and people who have experience in research with a practical bent.

For its electronic materials business, Rohm and Haas is looking for people who have semiconductor-related expertise or clean-room experience and who know how to work with electronic materials. The bottom line, Petoff says, is to "bring in people with a variety of backgrounds. We want the best of the best and to have them bring their perspectives to the job."

By comparison, Norbert W. Bischofberger, executive vice president of research and development at Gilead Sciences, a pharmaceutical company, is more circumspect. "There have been more mergers and acquisitions, leaving companies with cash that they want to put to use, but it's not clear that these changes will result in employment opportunities." He says the pharmaceutical industry is facing big challenges with patent expirations, revenue pressures, and overcapacity. "I don't get the feeling that the industry is doing exceptionally well," he says.

According to Bischofberger, Gilead's revenues have grown rapidly over the past few years, but its investment in R&D has not. "That needs to change," he says. The rate-limiting step for Gilead, he says, "is to be able to put enough time and effort in the hiring process to be able to attract really good candidates. Increasing the R&D workforce by 15-20% is a fairly aggressive goal; that means if you have 200 people in research, you're adding 40, which is a tall order."

Bischofberger says the company will be recruiting chemists, biochemists, molecular biologists, and analytical chemists for drug discovery, process chemistry, and analytical formulation.

In contrast, consumer products company Procter & Gamble is predicting a temporary decline in overall hiring. "Our demand this year is low and is probably about half of the historical average," says Ray D'Alonzo, manager of doctoral recruiting and university relations.

The decline is primarily in response to internal changes, D'Alonzo says. Last year, P&G acquired Gillette, a maker of razors and grooming products. "The integration of Gillette involved a restructuring, as any major acquisition does, to eliminate redundancies," he says. "We also restructured our pharmaceutical organization and eliminated our drug discovery operation, so our demand is down as a result."

P&G's practice is to hire at entry level and promote from within. The company typically hires candidates with no work experience, although in certain disciplines, one or two years of postdoc experience are desired. "In organic chemistry and other disciplines it often helps to have a postdoc," D'Alonzo says, "but we don't find it that important in analytical chemistry."

Despite the slowdown in hiring, P&G will be recruiting chemists and chemical engineers, and it will also have a need for Ph.D. analytical chemists. One of the common denominators of P&G's products is that "nearly all of them affect or treat a surface—skin, fabric, hair, hard floor—so we are very interested in surface chemistry and understanding how our products affect or alter a surface," D'Alonzo says. "Many analytical chemists work on surface problems."

P&G is also increasing the number of Ph.D. positions in Asia. Although these represent opportunities for foreign nationals, D'Alonzo says it's easier to send U.S. citizens with experience overseas to be managers than to hire locals; for permanent nonmanagerial staffing, however, P&G hires foreign nationals.

The optimism about this year's recruiting season doesn't yet extend to companies affiliated with pharma, such as contract research firms. Alexander Chucholowski, president of ChemBridge Research Laboratories (CRL), says the recruiting picture this year will look like last year's. "The economic environment continues to be affected by cost pressures and leads potential customers to explore low-cost solutions, such as conducting drug discovery abroad," he says.

"Many biotech companies are currently concentrating their efforts on late-stage clinical trials at the expense of preclinical research. This limits opportunities for chemists in preclinical research until the current cycle runs its course, and companies again increase investment in filling their early-stage pipelines," Chucholowski explains.

CRL is guarded about its plans. "Recruiting will depend on the successful achievement of our business goals," Chucholowski says. "If we are successful, we could grow up to 10-20%. We are especially interested in chemists with drug discovery experience." He adds that candidates who have postdoc experience with a proven track record are preferred.

A better outlook for those with experience in synthetic organic chemistry is a given, and the company is also looking for candidates with talents in natural product synthesis and medicinal chemistry, as well as specific training in analytical and process chemistry. "Hiring will occur on an as-needed basis as we see clear signs of growth in our business," Chucholowski says.

A particularly bright spot in hiring is the petrochemical industry. Second-quarter earnings for oil companies were up more than 6% over the same time last year (C&EN, Aug. 21, page 28). What will benefit new chemical engineers the most, however, is demographics: The baby boomers are reaching retirement age, and the workforce is transitioning to a new generation.

"It's going to be a very competitive but a very good year for chemical engineers," according to Susan Knox Wilson, manager of recruitment marketing for BP America. "It's a highly competitive market for the best in class. Top students are getting multiple offers, and there is lots of interest in them by the oil industry."

Wilson says that BP's workforce needs are up 30% because of increasing demands for exploration and production. The company recently announced that it will reconfigure a refinery in Whiting, Ind., so that most of its feedstock can be heavy Canadian crude oil.

"In addition to modernizing the refinery, we're hiring 60 to 80 full-time employees just to operate the processing units," she says. "We'll be adding 2,500 workers during the construction process as well."

BP is looking for people with solid technical capabilities as well as demonstrated creativity and innovative thinking. It hires mostly B.S. chemical engineers but also some Ph.D. chemists and chemical engineers. Experience, such as an internship, is also helpful to have on a résumé as a distinguishing factor.

Chevron Phillips Chemical's situation is similar to that of other companies in the petrochemical industry, says Danya Goerig, global staffing strategy manager for the company. "The industry, overall, has a very seasoned workforce that is nearing retirement, so companies like Chevron Phillips Chemical are relying on college recruiting as one strategy to ensure we are prepared for this potential loss of talent," she says.

"It is a great time to be graduating with a chemical engineering degree, and good students will likely have multiple offers," she adds. "Part of the demand is driven by a shortage of petroleum engineers. Some companies are hiring chemical engineers to fill the need for petroleum engineers, which makes recruiting tougher for companies like Chevron Phillips Chemical that hire predominantly chemical engineers."

The company is actively recruiting B.S.-level chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, and electrical engineers. Goerig says it is aggressively recruiting new graduates for the talent pipeline for leadership positions that will become available over the next three to 10 years as a result of workforce retirements.

Chemists are also employed in academia, and that career track presents its own set of challenges: the increased competition for academic positions, the uncertainty of earning tenure, and the paucity of grant funding. Departments often advertise for faculty in specific areas, but on the other hand, they are always looking for superstars. Despite the caveats, the overall outlook for employment is promising, on the basis of the number of academic openings advertised in C&EN.

UMD's chemistry department has hired three people so far this year, Doyle says, and he admits that he thought recruitment would be tougher. The department got its first choice on each of the searches, he says, for two reasons: "First, we're getting better at recruiting, and second, the pool of candidates out there was beautiful. There was a stellar pool of people."

Doyle also notes he's seen more ads for faculty openings this year: "Partly, it's due to retirements and partly due to departments that didn't get whom they were looking for."

Another trend Doyle has noticed is an increase in the number of graduates who are choosing to join the faculties of predominantly undergraduate institutions that offer research opportunities to students. "The feeling is the culture is more attractive at undergraduate institutions," he says. "If a faculty member at a Ph.D.-granting university loses a grant, students lose research positions, and so forth." Many graduates are declining to enter this "rat race." Doyle says. "This line of thinking is very evident," he says.

Generally, faculty positions are allocated to academic departments on the basis of student enrollment, other academic and curricular needs, and budgets. Departments fill vacancies through either a targeted or broad search. A targeted search involves searching for faculty with a specific specialty. For example, UMD has one targeted search still open this year, for a biomolecular X-ray crystallographer to be hired at the junior level.

By comparison, a broad search generally invites more applications. For example, at Emory's chemistry department, one job opening yielded 700 applications, Lynn reports. He says when the department conducts a more targeted search, it receives about one-third as many applications. A broad search, he says, attracts strong applicants and raises the quality of the applicant pool.

Meanwhile, at Illinois, the chemistry department is advertising for junior and senior faculty, Zimmerman says, but as a result of past successes, it does not currently have an urgent need to hire. He adds that he's seen no noticeable difference in the quantity or quality of the candidates.

At the University of Michigan, searches for junior and a few senior faculty are under way, says chemistry department chair Carol A. Fierke. "We have been continuously looking for junior faculty every year for some time," she says. "We have successfully added at least a couple of starting assistant professors each year for several years. This year's searches are both targeted and open." Fierke says there have been a large number of quality candidates for junior positions.

The demand for chemical scientists and engineers appears to have improved for this year's graduates, a good sign after the weakness of recent years. It appears that chemical employment has shifted into a slow-growth phase described in the 2005 ACS study, "The Chemistry Enterprise 2015" (http://chemistry.org/chemistryenterprise2015.html), which projects that workforce needs in traditional chemistry areas won't increase in the next 10 years.

However, the main message for graduates is to remain agile and willing to accept various assignments over their careers. The baby boom generation reaches 60 beginning this year and will have to be replaced with talented scientists of the next generation.

 

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