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Volume 87 Issue 44 | pp. 46-52
Issue Date: November 2, 2009

Cover Stories: A New Normal

Down But Not Out

Chemistry jobs took a beating this year, prompting out-of-work chemists to reinvent themselves
Department: Business, Career & Employment | Collection: Economy
Keywords: statistics, unemployment, job loss
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PUNISHING ROUND
Chemists have been losing jobs, but they’re not giving up.
Credit: Shutterstock
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PUNISHING ROUND
Chemists have been losing jobs, but they’re not giving up.
Credit: Shutterstock

Scanning the job loss numbers in the past 12 months from the Department of Labor is like reading casualty statistics of Civil War battles. In September, 263,000 more people lost their livelihoods. And that was a good month. Earlier in the year, more than a half-million people were losing their jobs each month.

In October, even as the Dow Jones Industrial Average broke through the psychologically significant 10,000 mark, yet more people were looking for jobs. Since the recession’s start in December 2007, the Labor Department stats show, 7.6 million people joined the ranks of the unemployed, and the total number of people out of work in the U.S. has surpassed 15 million. The overall rate of unemployment reached 9.8% by the end of September, with all indicators pointing to the imminent arrival of double-digit national unemployment.

Every month, more and more chemists contribute to these woeful statistics. Estimates of overall unemployment among the nation’s chemists hover around 4%, according to David Harwell, assistant director of the American Chemical Society’s Department of Career Management & 
Development. That may be less than half of the overall jobless rate, but it’s still traumatically high for chemical scientists, a group for whom unemployment had been all but a nonissue even a few years ago.

The Labor Department collects information on the chemical manufacturing sector, and its statistics provide a broad-brushstroke view of all employment within the chemical industry—where 51% of ACS members work. For September 2008, 844,000 people were chemical industry employees. One year later, that number had eroded to 802,000. Average chemical industry employment in 2007 was 860,000.

In the past year, recruiting among American Chemistry Council (ACC) member companies has been much reduced, says Kevin Swift, chief economist for the industry group. As a palliative of sorts, he notes that the downturn seems to be “bottoming out.” But by that he means the bloodletting is slowing down. “Instead of losing 4,000 or 5,000 jobs per month like we were earlier in the year, it now is less than 2,000 per month,” Swift says.

To get a broader perspective on the employment outlook for chemists, C&EN sought input from a diversity of sources—university recruiters, placement officers at companies, and bench chemists making their way in the toughest job market they have known. The collective message is a sobering, tough-love slap in the face: Get over the denial and do what you have to do to adapt to the new normal.

Sources unanimously agree that the chemistry community, already staggering from the job killings of 2008, is in for a rough ride for at least the next year or two. Much of this prognosis is based on “jobless recovery” patterns from recent recessions. It took 18 months and 19 months, respectively, to swing into a positive hiring territory after the recessions of 1991–92 and 2000, says John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of the high-end job-placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas and an expert on corporate practices, workplace issues, and the economy. Any rebound in hiring will be slow in coming, he tells C&EN.

In the face of bleak economic and on-the-ground signals, many sources also are taking a chin-up attitude, saying that chemists are the ones with the skills, know-how, and mind-set that the world will need to solve its more pressing problems. Chemists possess the professional traits, they say, that will put into practice the sustainability and green ethics frameworks that have been dominating rhetoric among ­technocrats.

“People still want stuff,” ACS’s Harwell says. “Eventually, people will have to make the stuff.” Ergo, more jobs ought to become available again for chemical professionals. ACC’s Swift phrases his pep talk in another way: “The chemical industry is a very exciting and innovative industry. Lots of the solutions to the nation’s problems, such as stemming climate change and developing renewable energy, will come from chemists.”

Robert Peoples, director of ACS’s Green Chemistry Institute, has yet another angle on the pep rally. “There will be huge opportunities in green chemistry going forward,” he says. “If you think, for example, of renewable energy, and conversion of biomass to renewable chemical building blocks and fuel, there is a huge gap in our knowledge that needs to be filled by the chemical community.” And for the 80,000 or so chemicals in commerce, chemists might need to develop green chemistry processes or alternatives for about 50,000 of them, Peoples points out. “Therein lie golden opportunities for chemists,” he says.

Some of the financial fuel needed to put motion into such uplifting visions is likely to come from the Obama Administration’s $787 billion stimulus package. Swift estimates that of the portion spent so far, $2 billion has fed into the chemistry enterprise. Of that, he suspects, roughly $500 million might have prevented thousands of additional job losses in chemistry, a number based on a salary/benefit value in the $100,000+ range. The Administration’s emphasis on energy efficiency and green manufacturing ought to create jobs that have, Swift says, “certain chemistry content to them.” Among the areas that he cites are weatherizing; the design, manufacturing, and construction of wind turbines and other renewable energy structures; and sealants.

Amid the steady stream of “force reduction” announcements by chemical companies, their spokespersons project an optimistic air about their hiring plans, at least on their websites and when talking to reporters. “Despite the difficult economic situation, we have taken on scientists, especially chemists, worldwide this year and will continue to hire staff selectively,” Sabrina Manz of the Essen, Germany-based chemical company Evonik Industries tells C&EN. “As a creative industrial group, we know that it is particularly important to steadily recruit young scientists for the future. Talented and committed young scientists will therefore always find career opportunities,” she says.

These are hopeful feel-good messages, but the here-and-now often has a knack for chipping away at hope and joy. Consider the chemistry industry bellwether Dow Chemical: At the end of 2008, Dow announced the layoff of 5,000 employees—about 11% of its total chemist-packed workforce. And the ax continues to drop in the industry. Last month, for one, Clariant, the Swiss specialty chemical firm, revealed that it was set to cut an additional 800 jobs worldwide beyond the 1,850 that it announced earlier in the year. And Air Products & Chemicals, with a workforce of 21,000 worldwide in 2008, announced in late July its plans to eliminate 1,150 positions. That’s on top of the company’s vanishing act on 1,400 positions that it announced in January.

And consider the pharmaceutical industry, one of the perennial lands of opportunity for chemists: It has been shedding jobs as though its life depended on it, which the industry says it does. After announcing 31,000 layoffs in 2008, U.S. pharma companies picked up the pace of pink slipping yet more in 2009, much of it spurred by Pfizer’s acquisition of Wyeth and by Merck & Co.’s absorption of Schering-Plough (C&EN, March 16, page 24). That pair of tectonic industrial shifts alone resulted in the evaporation of some 8,000 and 15,000 jobs or more, respectively. And last month, Eli Lilly & Co. announced it would heap on 5,000 more to the casualty numbers.

Although massive layoffs are unlikely to continue in 2010, prospects for a major turnaround are not promising, says Tom Morrison, a principal in the human-capital practice of Deloitte Consulting. And other forms of job erosion will continue to unfold. “Through restructurings, plant shutdowns, or furloughs, companies are finding ways to reduce their workforce, either temporarily or permanently,” he tells C&EN. And with “flexible workforce arrangements, workhour cutbacks, and shift configurations, we’ve seen every possible iteration coming out of the chemical industry,” he says.

Even on college campuses, these multipronged threats to employment are becoming commonplace. Although new graduates are, in general, getting jobs, Eric L. Garfunkel, chair of Rutgers University’s chemistry department in Piscataway, N.J., says faculty need to do more with less. “We are putting in more hours, our stress is higher, the classes are growing, and we are pushing more tenured faculty to teach more undergraduate classes,” he says. Moreover, the department is turning to adjunct faculty for more of the teaching responsibilities. “We are using annuals and lecturers, non-tenure-track people who all have Ph.D.s but for various reasons did not keep on the research track,” Garfunkel says. “These people are not paid as much, but their teaching skills can be good or even better” than those of seasoned faculty, he notes.

The blogger known as Chemjobber, a Ph.D. synthetic chemist who now works at a small research laboratory in the Midwest, has been tracking chemistry employment in idiosyncratic but telling ways. He became a job tracker in 2008 as a consequence of his own frustrating job search when he was a postdoc at a major pharmaceutical company that rhymes with appetizer. He spoke to C&EN on condition that his name would not be revealed.

In early 2008, Chemjobber says, “I started applying for jobs and started putting feelers out there. I cast a broad net. I put out about 50 applications, and I got five or six interviews. But I pretty much got completely 100% skunked by big pharma.”

That’s when “I decided I wanted to know how bad it really was out there,” particularly for chemists seeking jobs in industry, he recalls. So Chemjobber turned to one measure of chemists’ employment that had been coming to his inbox every week for years: the classified job section of C&EN. He admits that his method of tracking the chemistry job market isn’t perfect and that it doesn’t track online advertising, but it does yield interesting results. Each week, Chemjobber counts the numbers of ads and positions in C&EN’s classified pages and shares the information with his readers.

In September, Chemjobber posted a table based on his tabulations from a mid-September issue (closest to Sept. 14) in each of the past 21 years. “The resulting graph … is not encouraging,” Chemjobber wrote in his blog when he posted the chart on Sept. 27. “In the past month, there have been two (count ’em—two!) industrial job ads in Chemical & Engineering News.

Kenneth M. Carroll, director of advertising sales for C&EN, is well aware of the situation. “Right now, it is a very difficult marketplace,” he says. Most noticeable has been the lack of employment advertising by pharmaceutical companies, normally a mainstay for the magazine’s classified ads. “What has held us together are the academic postings,” Carroll notes. “But they have slowed, too.” Despite the dramatic downturn in advertising that the entire publishing sector has experienced in recent years, Carroll strikes a hopeful note, saying there are indicators that 2010 will bring more job ads, including more classified ads for opportunities in Europe and China.

By October of last year, just as the economy was about to nose dive toward the present recession, Chemjobber was desperate for a position. “In a last-ditch, middle-of-the-night leap, I sent out an application to the company I work at now.” The offer came, as Chemjobber sees it, “with a shockingly low salary.” But he also knew that the economic times were troubled and could remain that way for some time. So, he accepted. “It’s been okay,” he tells C&EN.

“Okay” is about as good as the job-getting experience is likely to be in the near future for most chemists seeking jobs. The willingness to compromise that Chemjobber showed and his choice to align his expectation with reality constitute this moment’s right stuff for getting jobs, recruiters say. This is especially true for older chemists who suddenly find themselves in the job market during economically shrinking times. “If you have any age issues, it will be tough,” says Patrick B. Ropella, CEO of the executive search firm Ropella Group, which includes the chemical sector among its specialties. “The more experience you have, the more expensive you are. That is making it tough. People are taking jobs for less money than they used to get. And if you are unable to relocate, you also narrow your options. You have to be open and flexible,” he says.

Richard F. Pennock, a vice president with the scientific placement firm Kelly Services, has noticed an uptick in employers seeking chemists for quality-control/quality-assurance roles in manufacturing. He is also encouraged by the billions of dollars of stimulus money streaming into research, much by way of program managers at the National Institutes of Health.

“We are starting to see some positions supporting those types of research projects,” Pennock says, although many of these may be temporary and vulnerable when the spike of stimulus money ends. Pennock also adds to the chorus about the employment bonanza that could come from the creation of green jobs with chemistry components. He has his eyes on areas such as the development and production of polymer films and insulating gases for energy-efficient windows and the design and production of solar energy materials.

As the use and production of traditional chemicals shift toward chemicals and materials that are themselves greener and produced in greener ways, chemists will need to morph their own skill sets and mind-sets. This is why chemists who are paying attention to and responding to the macro trends in the economy, environmental politics, and social networking could find themselves better positioned for the new normal, sources say. “We know the science is shifting, and so now is a good time to retool and get ready to help meet those new demands,” says Peoples of the Green Chemistry Institute.

One indicator that some chemists might be turning a tough job market into an opportunity to develop new skills and credentials is the number of applicants for the Ph.D. program in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “We had 750 applicants this year,” 77 of whom were accepted, says Stephanie Nagle, career services coordinator for the UW chemistry department. “The year before it was 600 and something, and before that, about 500.”

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Credit: SOURCE: Chemjobber blog, derived from the issue of C&EN closest to Sept. 14.
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Credit: SOURCE: Chemjobber blog, derived from the issue of C&EN closest to Sept. 14.

Nagle also notes that about a dozen high-profile companies—among them Dow, 3M, Lilly, Procter & Gamble, and Ecolabs—have kept the same level of recruiting activity as in recent years. Patricia A. Simpson, Nagle’s cohort at the School of Chemical Sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says company recruitment there has kept up, too. “The difference this year is that some companies have fewer positions to fill,” Simpson says.

Meanwhile, Chemjobber observes that the Harvard University chemistry department’s schedule of recruiters is not as busy as that of midwestern colleagues. Visiting the recruiting schedules on the department’s website, he tabulated the recruiting visits made each year between 2006 and 2009. In a Sept. 12 blog posting titled “Department of Awful Statistics,” he posted a histogram showing a precipitous annual reduction in recruiting visits: 29, 26, 21, and eight. “If they ain’t hiring folks outta Harvard, they’re not hiring anywhere,” he blogged.

Adding to the woe for some out-of-work chemists is how long it takes to find a new job. “One of the hardest things for people to deal with is being out of work for a very long time, for more than six months in many cases,” ACS’s Harwell says. “Younger people in the workforce expect flux, but mid- and late-career chemists have never been through this. This is the first time they have been out of work since they got their first job. And now some are running up against the end of their unemployment benefits. This is the worst that I have seen,” Harwell says.

Chemjobber says he will be there commiserating with his fellow chemists and blogging about the employment scene until things pick up again. “I want to ride this out,” he says. “I don’t know if I want to be doing Chemjobber 10 years from now, but I will do it until this unemployment thing comes around.”

The blogger also is a realist. “I am 33 years old. I could be a plumber if I lost my job. I could do what it takes. But what about that older guy who is really looking for a job and has a mortgage and three kids? These are the people who are just getting kicked in the kidneys.”

 
 
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