Issue Date: November 5, 2012
Chemical Professionals Are Moving Away From Family To Find Job Prospects
When Duane Burnett lost his job in big pharma at the end of last year, he initially focused close to home in his search for a new position. After all, he had put down deep roots in Kenilworth, N.J., where he had worked for more than 23 years at Schering-Plough and later at Merck & Co. after the companies’ 2009 merger.
He finally landed the perfect position—one that “checked all his boxes”—as director of chemistry at EnVivo Pharmaceuticals. The downside? It was in Watertown, Mass., some 250 miles from his home and family.
Burnett feels fortunate to have found a position that allows him to pursue his passion for discovering central nervous system drugs. However, accepting the job has meant that he has had to live apart from his family for eight months so far. As a result, “I have a profound sense of loss,” he says. “You can’t replace the time that you share over a meal or over other activities that keep you close as a family,” says Burnett. “I truly miss that time. It is the biggest sacrifice I have had to make, and I think about it a lot.”
Burnett is not alone. To secure one of the relatively few desirable jobs that do exist in today’s weak job market, many U.S. chemists find they have to relocate to other parts of the U.S. or the world. As Burnett’s experience shows, taking a far-flung opportunity often brings the emotional hardship of separation from home or family. In addition, these moves often generate financial pressures as displaced chemists set up second residences or struggle to sell their home in a still-troubled housing market.
Numerous factors—such as cost-cutting efforts, mergers and acquisitions, outsourcing of jobs outside the U.S., and the consolidation of R&D or manufacturing sites—are coming together to quash job opportunities for U.S.-based chemists. At the same time, these forces are redistributing the jobs that remain into specific regions of the U.S. and around the world, says Mark Lanfear, a global practice leader at Kelly Services, a workforce solutions company. This phenomenon is occurring in many industries that hire chemists, including pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, and food, he adds.
Within the chemical industry in the U.S., chemists are migrating to “islands of job opportunity” that are being created through factors such as mergers and the consolidation of operations, observes Michael Legenza, a global marketing manager for Air Products & Chemicals’ ACT specialty chemical strippers product line. “Jobs don’t seem to be spread as much across the contiguous 48 states as they may have been years ago,” adds Legenza, who has relocated away from his family during part of his 30-year career in the semiconductor industry.
A willingness to remain flexible will be key for those who want to keep a job in the chemical industry in the future, says Legenza, who mentors younger chemists at Air Products. “Chemists will have to be more nomadic,” he predicts. “They are going to have to move around more” to stay employed.
Harlan F. Reese, a small-molecule research chemist at Roche, concurs. “For anybody in chemistry or in drug discovery, this is the most tumultuous period I have seen during my career—resulting in the relocation of human capital all over the country, all over the world,” says Reese, who has not been without work as an organic process chemist for 36 years. But he’ll lose his job in January when Roche shutters its Nutley, N.J., site. As a result, he laments that he may have to relocate away from his wife and daughters for the second time in his career.
In the pharmaceutical industry, job opportunities are dwindling in Pennsylvania as well as New Jersey, where Burnett says many of his former colleagues are still struggling to find work in their chosen field. At the same time, employment prospects are growing in and around Boston and San Francisco, where drug and biotech companies are being spun off from world-class academic institutions or venture capital firms, observes Josh Albert, managing partner of the Philadelphia-based life sciences recruiting firm Klein Hersh International.
Consequently, some laid-off chemists have had to move to these areas to secure jobs with pharma- or biotech-focused firms, including those that provide research or manufacturing services to companies eager to outsource this work, Albert observes.
After being severed from his role as a senior scientist at Abbott Laboratories in February 2011, Arturo Perez-Medrano was unable to find a position close to home and family in Grayslake, Ill. Instead, he says he accepted “an exciting and challenging” position as a senior process scientist at Ampac Fine Chemicals, an active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) contract manufacturer in Rancho Cordova, Calif., northeast of San Francisco. One drawback is that his family remains in Illinois.
Other chemists have moved outside the U.S. to tap similar job opportunities. That is the case for Scott A. Miller, whose position was eliminated earlier this year after his then-employer, Adolor, was acquired by Cubist Pharmaceuticals in October 2011. Despite working with recruiters and applying for advertised positions, he was unable to find a job in the U.S. Instead, he accepted a job as head of special projects at Carbogen Amcis, an API contract manufacturer in Bubendorf, Switzerland. In a role that has taken him far from his family, he now evaluates and adapts new technologies to meet customer needs.
Other chemists have gone to Asia. After losing two jobs in the course of four years, Andy White took a position as vice president of discovery chemistry services at contract research organization Shanghai ChemPartner almost a year ago.
Earlier in his career, White says, he spent 17 “wonderful years” working in Ann Arbor, Mich., initially at Parke-Davis and then at Pfizer when it acquired the company. After the site was shut down, he moved on to Lundbeck, in Paramus, N.J., in 2007. Four years later, White’s department was shuttered. At that point, “I knew immediately—given the employment environment for chemists—that it would be extremely challenging to find a role that would satisfy me in the U.S.,” he says. “I came to China because I wanted to continue working with talented scientists to discover new drugs.”
Throughout his tenure in New Jersey and China, he has kept his home in Pinckney, Mich. He continues to commute home to his wife and two sons, who are now students at the University of Michigan.
Outside of pharma, other chemists are making similar transitions. In the semiconductor industry, for example, many chemists are following jobs that have moved offshore to places like Taiwan, China, and South Korea, observes Air Products’ Legenza.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., Legenza is among those chemists who have relocated to other areas in response to other market factors impacting the semiconductor industry. His job shifted from Marlborough, Mass., to Trexlertown, Pa., after Air Products’ 2003 acquisition of the electronic chemicals business of Ashland Chemical, which he had joined 18 months earlier. Air Products offered him a generous relocation package. But Legenza and his wife opted to keep their home in Bellingham, Mass., in part so they wouldn’t disrupt the lives of their children, the youngest of whom has special needs. Consequently, he has been commuting 300 miles home every week for about a decade. During a typical week, he wakes at 2 AM on Tuesday and drives to Pennsylvania, returning home late on Thursday night. He works from home the other days.
Despite the rigors of this arrangement, Legenza takes his work schedule in stride. “We’ve adapted as a family,” he says. “When necessity hits, you do what you need to do.”
Kekeli Ekoue-Kovi and her husband, Onome Ugono, have discovered this firsthand since earning Ph.D.s in organic chemistry at Georgetown University in 2008. During their brief careers, each one has already had to move twice to secure jobs, limiting the amount of time they’ve been able to spend together.
After finishing grad school, the couple looked for permanent positions in the same city. That plan didn’t work out. Ekoue-Kovi accepted a postdoc at Obiter Research, a contract research and manufacturing firm in Champaign, Ill., in September 2008, while her husband found a postdoc position at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, three months later.
Eventually, Ugono joined his wife at Obiter, when he landed a position as a research scientist. They were able to live together for a year before Ekoue-Kovi, who had moved into a senior research chemist role, lost her job in a round of layoffs at the company. This February, she moved to Houston to take a position as a senior fuel additives chemist in the energy services arm of Nalco, a water treatment firm. Ekoue-Kovi says she enjoys her job as a product development researcher but regrets that she is able to see her husband only about once a month.
As illustrated by the experiences of the chemical professionals profiled here, the emotional impact of being separated from family can be significant.
Roche’s Reese emphasizes this point. After leaving a dead-end role as an organic process chemist at a contract research organization near Sacramento in 2002, he spent seven years commuting to a job at Roche Bioscience in Palo Alto, Calif. During that period, he made the 150-mile trek home only on weekends, having determined that moving his family closer to his new job was not economically feasible.
Commuting during those years was rough. Reese says he gets very sentimental when he thinks about the time he lost with his daughters, who were four and seven years old at the start of that period of separation. “After working long days, I would go out for a jog around Palo Alto and see parents watching their kids play soccer. It was heartrending because I wanted to be doing that with my kids,” he says. “On the other hand, I was happy to be able to provide for my family so that they didn’t want for anything.”
When Roche closed the Palo Alto site in 2009, Reese and his family accepted an offer to relocate across the country with the company to Nutley—mainly because it meant that they could again be together as a family every night. Ironically, only three years later, that may no longer be possible, says Reese. With a dearth of jobs in New Jersey, it is likely that Reese will have to relocate to a job in another state, while the family will stay put, at least until his youngest daughter finishes high school.
Being in that situation has been painful for Ampac’s Perez-Medrano. He is only able to fly home to Illinois to see his wife and teenage sons every five to eight weeks. “I really miss them. I get very emotional when I fly to see them and have to leave them again,” adds Perez-Medrano, who has worked in pharma for 21 years.
Carbogen Amcis’ Miller is working 4,000 miles from his wife and children, who are 10, 14, and 17 years old. He can afford to travel home from Switzerland to see his family only every two months or so, depending on his business travel schedule and the availability of frequent flyer miles. Between visits, he relies on tools such as Skype and FaceTime to see his family members’ faces and catch up on their lives. “It’s an odd experience living alone in another country,” he says, “and it is not something I ever expected to happen in my career.”
In addition to having to endure the separation from his family, Miller also feels the financial pinch of maintaining a second residence in Switzerland, where the cost of living is exceptionally high. His family would like to join him there. As is the case in many parts of the U.S., however, their home in Drexel Hill, Pa., has lost value. Despite having put it on the market 10 months ago, they have received no purchase offers.
Many others who want to relocate for a job are facing challenges related to selling their homes, according to Ronald McElhaney Sr., managing partner of Savannah Management Recruiters, which focuses on the specialty chemical market. Last year, five of his placements fell through when the job candidates found they didn’t have enough equity in their homes and couldn’t afford to sell.
Faced with the same dilemma, another of McElhaney’s candidates sold his New Jersey home at a loss in order to secure the only job he could find. The chemical engineer and his family relocated to Paducah, Ky., where he had been placed in a production position.
To make matters worse, chemical professionals who are struggling to sell their homes may receive less assistance through relocation packages than they might have in the past, sources say.
The high cost of moving a family coupled with the continued instability of the industry were major factors behind the decision that Albert J. Robichaud and his wife made to keep their family in the same Ringoes, N.J., home through two of his recent job changes.
First, Robichaud lost his job as chemistry site head at Wyeth Research in Princeton, N.J., following Pfizer’s acquisition of the company. In 2009, he joined Lundbeck in Paramus as vice president of chemistry and pharmacokinetic sciences. As a result, his daily round-trip commute jumped from 36 miles to 150 miles. Then, late last year, Robichaud became chief scientific officer of Boston-based Sage Therapeutics, a start-up aimed at developing central nervous system therapies. He now returns home only on weekends—something he will continue to do at least until his youngest child starts college in two years.
Although taking the position at Sage has its drawbacks, it also offers many benefits, Robichaud says. By moving to Boston he has been able to rapidly expand his network of contacts in a place that he characterizes as “the true biotech center of the world, where science geeks are superstars.” He often spends Thursday nights meeting people—many of whom are also commuting to and from homes in other states—for drinks or dinner. “The discussions are always stimulating, and they are all about science,” he says.
Another plus to his current work arrangement is “the luxury of being able to totally focus on my work and on the goals that I am passionately trying to achieve—something I have not been able to do since graduate school,” Robichaud says. “From Sunday afternoon until Friday night, I live, eat, breathe, and drink the work that I am doing here at Sage.” On weekends, however, he says he “powers down” and completely focuses on his family.
“Despite the hardships,” he adds, “I feel fortunate to have found an opportunity that allows me to stay true to the science and work toward finding medicines for diseases that currently remain untreated.”
From Shanghai, White echoes that sentiment. Although he misses taking walks with his sons and chatting with his wife over coffee, he views his job at ChemPartner as a “wonderful chance to keep doing drug discovery.” Throughout this career, he notes, “I have done a lot of traveling to keep doing what I love to do.”
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
- Copyright © American Chemical Society