Issue Date: November 4, 2013
Still Waiting For Good Times
Chemists scanning the want ads may wonder when the prolonged convulsion that has wracked their profession will be over. The most honest answer from industry observers might be, “Try to hang on a little longer.” That’s because low-cost fuel and feedstocks from the burgeoning exploitation of shale gas reserves are beginning to revive the U.S. chemical industry. But it’s going to take a while for that stimulus to translate into a much better employment picture.
Since the Great Recession began in December 2007, thousands of chemists have been put out of work. Many of them haven’t found a new job, while others have had to make do with a position that doesn’t fully exploit their skills.
“There are a lot of qualified people out there who are either unemployed or underemployed,” says Paul Hodges, a chemical industry veteran who is now chairman of International eChem, a London-based chemical industry think tank.
The recession officially ended in June 2009, and the U.S. economy has been slowly crawling back to life. But growth is being constrained by gridlock in Washington, D.C., uncertainty in industry, and hesitation among consumers who worry that it’s a little early to celebrate the return of good times.
Nor is the U.S. alone in its lackluster economic performance. “While we are seeing some signs of recovery, global growth remains subdued,” said Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in a September speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Growth in advanced economies should reach just 1.2% this year and 2.0% next year, as compared with 1.7% in 2011 and 1.5% in 2012, according to Olivier Blanchard, director of IMF’s research department, speaking at a press briefing for the October update of the organization’s world economic outlook.
In the U.S. in particular, growth was 1.8% in 2011 and 2.8% in 2012. IMF expects U.S. growth to total a meager 1.6% in 2013 and 2.6% next year.
Developing and emerging-market economies—which Lagarde said have helped keep the global economy afloat during the crisis—grew at 6.2% in 2011 and 4.9% in 2012. But growth in these regions is dropping faster than the IMF had forecast as recently as July and is only expected to reach 4.5% this year, Blanchard predicts. Growth will pick up again next year to reach 5.1%.
What’s caused the dip? Among other factors, economies in the developing world and elsewhere were spooked when the U.S. Federal Reserve signaled in May and June that it was considering moves that might raise interest rates, increasing the cost of borrowing capital.
The Fed later backpedaled, but another U.S. drama unnerved world economies in September and October. Congress was unable to agree on a federal budget for fiscal year 2014—which began on Oct. 1—and whether to raise the so-called debt ceiling. Wrangling between Democrats and Republicans over these issues led to a partial government shutdown beginning on Oct. 1.
Congress arrived at a compromise on Oct. 16. The uneasy truce provides only a temporary reprieve: It funds U.S. government programs through next January and raises the U.S. debt ceiling only enough to cover expenses until next February. So a similar spectacle could play out again in coming weeks as Congress tries to reach a longer-term agreement.
“These cliffhangers breed uncertainty and fear—two things that no one needs right now as countries try to exit the crisis,” said Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development, in a speech last month. “In our interconnected world, the deadlock needlessly put at risk the stability and growth not only of the U.S. but also of the wider global economy.”
And there’s another unsettling force at work: Across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, averaging 8% per federal agency, were imposed on many federal discretionary programs in March of this year. In all, successive rounds of the sequester will carve roughly $1 trillion out of the budget through 2021 unless Congress changes the law (C&EN, Sept. 2, page 35).
“While it is critical for [U.S.] government spending to be reduced in order to shrink the nation’s deficit, these cutbacks do not occur in a vacuum,” according to John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of the outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “They have real-world consequences that ripple throughout the economy. So the push to cut federal spending, while absolutely necessary, is going to impact jobs both inside and outside the government.” Challenger made his remarks last month when announcing his firm’s latest report on job cuts by U.S. employers.
For now, however, the numbers are moving in the right direction. Home buying and prices are picking up, the number of foreclosures is falling, and weekly jobless claims have dropped to “some of the lowest levels we have seen since the end of the recession,” Challenger noted.
The U.S. unemployment rate has slowly fallen from 7.9% in January to 7.2% in September, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For the full year, U.S. unemployment is expected to drop from an average of 8.1% in 2012 to 7.6% in 2013 and 7.4% in 2014, IMF forecasts.
However, improvements in unemployment rates can be deceptive, because discouraged job hunters who abandon their search are no longer counted as unemployed. In fact, the ratio of employment to population has actually dropped slightly over the past year. IMF notes that the return of discouraged job seekers to the labor market when conditions improve will suppress wage growth for some time.
The anticipated 2013 unemployment rate varies enormously around the globe. In Switzerland and Germany, it’s expected to average 3.2% and 5.6%, respectively. In the U.K., the rate will be comparable to that in the U.S. In France, unemployment will stand at 12.3% in 2013. But even that rate is far better than in countries such as Spain and South Africa, where a quarter of the potential workforce is jobless, IMF reports. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in developed Asian countries and in China is forecast to average an enviable 4.1% for the year. For 2014, IMF projects slight or no change in the unemployment rate for all of these regions.
Zeroing in on the U.S. chemical manufacturing sector, employment totaled 791,500 on a seasonally adjusted basis in September 2013, down 0.2% from the prior month but up 0.8% from September 2012, according to preliminary BLS figures. Back in September 2007, before the Great Recession began, chemical employment was considerably higher, at 863,100.
Within the chemical workforce, supervisory and other nonproduction workers endured a much greater plunge than other workers did in terms of the percentage of jobs lost since September 2007. In that month, they numbered 353,100. As of September 2012, their ranks had thinned to 291,000. But as of this September, this group had expanded by 3.9% to reach 302,400, according to preliminary BLS statistics.
In September 2007, there were some 510,000 production and nonsupervisory workers. Their worst September since that time came in 2010, when they numbered 470,600. By last September, the group had recovered to 494,100, but their numbers slipped by 5,000, or 1.0%, over the past year.
Data collected by the American Chemical Society indicate that the overall employment situation for chemists is showing “modest improvement” this year, says David Harwell, assistant director for career management at ACS, which publishes C&EN. He expects this trend to continue.
Indeed, full-time employment is at its highest level in five years, according to the society’s latest annual survey of members in the U.S. workforce (C&EN, Sept. 23, page 9). Some 91.1% of respondents to this year’s survey indicated they had full-time work as of March, up from the low of 88.1% in 2010.
Unemployment among ACS members was 3.5% as of this March. That figure is considerably better than the 4.2% reported a year earlier, but it’s still far worse than the low of 2.3% in 2008, before the effects of the Great Recession kicked in. Admittedly, unemployment among chemists is significantly lower than the average for U.S. workers as a group, but at present, it’s only slightly lower than the U.S. average for all degree holders.
Chemists in the pharmaceutical industry have borne the brunt of the cutbacks in recent years as companies cut costs to shore up earnings decimated by the expiration of patents on their blockbuster drugs as well as fewer drugs being developed (C&EN, March 4, page 34). Back in 2010, job cuts in pharma announced by U.S. employers during the first three quarters of the year totaled 43,334, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas. The analogous number was 19,076 in 2011, 10,109 in 2012, and 8,922 this year.
Job cuts announced by U.S. employers for the rest of the chemical industry stood at a mere 1,716 during the first three quarters of 2010, Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports. That figure rose to 2,447 and 2,545 during the same period in 2011 and 2012, respectively. This year it stands at 2,240.
Downsizing is still taking place in the U.S. chemical industry, Harwell says. “We’re seeing additional cuts in R&D personnel.”
Uncertainty associated with turmoil in Washington, D.C., makes it hard for business leaders to map out their strategy, Harwell explains. “How is a company going to function in a society that can’t come up with a budget more than six months in advance, or set up tax credits, or even a taxing policy? How do you put together a business plan for that?”
That’s hurting big business and consequently limiting hiring, he notes. Furthermore, few small businesses have launched in the past year, though economists had hoped they would help fuel the revival of the U.S. economy.
On the other hand, hires by agencies that provide companies with temporary scientific staff have been trending up, Harwell says. “At the beginning of any recovery, a company is not going to bring on people full-time,” he says. “They don’t make that big a commitment because they don’t know that there’s a sustained market demand for their product.” Instead, they bring in staff on a temporary or contract basis to build capacity without the risk of a long-term commitment.
In previous recoveries, such jobs have served as a stepping-stone to permanent employment, but Harwell isn’t seeing that same conversion currently. And he’s concerned that the uncertainty bred by Washington gridlock will continue at least until the next presidential election. That could damp companies’ willingness to hire full-timers through 2016, or even beyond, if neither party wins a resounding victory.
T. Kevin Swift, chief economist and managing director for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), is more upbeat. He expects to see “continued renewed momentum in the industry, and that will pull employment along with it” in the coming year. “We see production ramping up, and we see it gathering a lot of strength as we go into the mid-decade and beyond.”
The driver behind that growth is the recent availability of inexpensive shale gas, which Swift describes as “the most significant development in 75 years in this industry. It has been a game changer.”
Horizontal-drilling techniques as well as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have made it technologically and economically feasible to obtain natural gas and ethane derived from previously untapped underground shale deposits in North America.
The new technology has lowered the cost of natural gas—which the chemical industry uses as a fuel and feedstock—and ethane, another major feedstock for the industry. That puts competitors outside the U.S. that rely on more expensive oil-based fuel and feedstocks at a disadvantage, according to ACC. Shale gas has “radically changed the competitiveness of the U.S. chemical industry for the better,” Swift says.
Just a decade ago, “we were in a very disadvantaged position in most products,” Swift says, so numerous plants closed in the U.S. “In the 2000s, we lost about 45% of our ammonia capacity and 25% of our chlorine capacity. Ethylene crackers were shut down, and so were some of the ammonia and methanol plants that went with them.”
“People had given up on the U.S. as a manufacturing destination,” International eChem’s Hodges recalls. “Something had to come along to change that perception, and the arrival of shale gas was the catalyst for that. Suddenly, if people said, ‘We couldn’t possibly manufacture in the States,’ others would say, ‘Why not?’ ”
As a result, “people are reinvesting in the States now in the larger-volume commodity products” such as ethylene, Hodges says.
Some plants have been reopened in the past few years, and others are being debottlenecked, Swift notes. “We’re now getting into a slew of expansions,” he says. “And in a couple years we’re going to start to see a lot of greenfield activity occurring—complete new petrochemical complexes, new steam crackers, new downstream plants.”
“That starts to create demand for chemists again,” Hodges says. “If you’re going to build million-ton crackers on the Gulf Coast, you’ve got to have some chemists around to help you do it, and quite a lot of process engineers.”
In all, ACC estimates that the shale gas boom will create 46,000 jobs in the U.S. chemical industry by 2020.
ACC’s running tally of chemical industry project announcements in the U.S. currently lists 128 projects worth $85 billion that are due to come on-line by 2020. Many of these plants will produce petrochemicals, fertilizers, and plastic resins, but Swift also expects new capacity for specialty chemicals down the road as the economic recovery picks up steam.
Shale gas isn’t the only force drawing the chemical industry—and associated jobs—back to the U.S. and other developed nations.
Business-friendly government policies are also leading some chemical and pharmaceutical companies to “reshore” work they had previously moved from the U.S. or Europe to Asia to drive down costs, Hodges says. For instance, U.K.-based pharmaceutical and health care company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) came to an agreement with the British government last year to repatriate $1 billion of manufacturing and R&D activity in exchange for a break on corporate taxes, he says.
The government’s concession “transformed the way in which we view the U.K. as a location for new investments, ensuring that the medicines of the future will not only be discovered, but can also continue to be made, here in Britain,” noted GSK’s CEO Andrew P. Witty at the time. “Consequently, we can confirm that we will build GSK’s first new U.K. factory for almost 40 years and that we will make other substantial capital investments in our British manufacturing base.” He estimated the projects would create up to 1,000 new jobs and said the company was considering other life sciences investments in the U.K.
Other factors are propelling the reshoring trend. Companies that return R&D and manufacturing to the advanced economies are installing modern technology that makes costs competitive with those in developing economies, Hodges explains.
By way of example, he notes that both pharma and the wider chemical industry are turning from traditional batch processing methods to continuous processing to manufacture their products (C&EN, May 27, page 30). Continuous processing is less wasteful, less expensive, and provides a better-quality product with fewer impurities, Hodges says. He believes the switch will reduce manufacturing costs even more than the shale gas boom.
Still, he’s careful not to oversell the impact on jobs. In part, that’s because continuous processing lowers costs by requiring fewer workers.
So where will some of the chemical industry’s job openings crop up in the coming year?
Cambrex, a contract manufacturing organization focused on active pharmaceutical ingredients, plans to continue “fairly aggressive hiring” into next year at its plants in Charles City, Iowa, and Karlskoga, Sweden, according to Shawn P. Cavanagh, executive vice president and chief operating officer. To enable a $30 million expansion at its Iowa plant, the firm boosted its local workforce by about 30% last year, which made room for more analytical chemists as well as process and project engineers, who were primarily chemical engineers.
The company continues to look for analytical chemists, who are in tight supply in the industry because of increased demand for validation of analytical methods, Cavanagh notes.
Cambrex would also like to hire additional chemical engineers with about five years of experience so they can hit the ground running when they arrive on-site. “But there seems to be a real lack of skilled chemical engineers that fall into that bracket, or at least we have some difficulty recruiting to certain areas of the country,” Cavanagh says. “Geography is somewhat challenging for us sometimes. Unless you grew up in the Midwest, it’s unlikely that you’re going to go from the Northeast to Iowa to be an engineer.” The same hurdle exists for the firm’s plant in Sweden.
Cambrex is responding by considering candidates with less experience.
Air Products & Chemicals, which supplies gases, performance materials, and equipment and services, is looking to hire about the same number of entry-level chemists and chemical engineers next year as it did this year in the U.S., says Lizette Skweir, supervisor for corporate sourcing and staffing. The company will take on about 60 new graduates and about 125 interns; most will be chemical engineers. Because of the shortage of chemical engineering graduates, Skweir says her company is considering industrial engineers, electrical engineers, and materials science engineers to fill these job openings.
Hiring of experienced staff will also continue at this year’s rate. They will include plant process engineers, safety engineers, start-up engineers, and research chemists.
At FMC, a specialty chemical company that serves agricultural, industrial, environmental, and consumer markets, hiring in 2014 will be similar to 2013—though that represents an increase over 2012 levels. Those hires tend to be chemical engineers rather than chemists, notes Kevin Cornely, talent acquisition manager.
Dow Chemical’s hiring of chemists and chemical engineers next year will be similar to the volume in 2013. “We continue to experience robust demand with a slight increase in some areas for 2014,” says Ingolf Thom, director of Dow’s HR center of expertise, global workforce planning, and talent acquisition.
“The need for chemists and chemical engineers is driven by several factors, including key investments in projects on the U.S. Gulf Coast, specifically in Texas and Louisiana,” he notes. “These projects are part of a comprehensive investment plan to increase the company’s ethylene and propylene production and to connect the company’s U.S. operations into feedstock opportunities made available from increasing supplies of U.S. shale gas.” These moves will enable profitable growth in North and South America and strengthen the competitiveness of Dow’s performance plastics, performance products, and advanced materials businesses, as well as the elastomers product family and the full acrylates chain, he says.
“The continued growth in Dow’s AgroSciences division, our innovation pipeline, and our joint venture Sadara have led to additional opportunities for chemists and chemical engineers in the U.S. and globally,” Thom says. Sadara, Dow’s joint venture with Saudi Aramco, is building a $20 billion chemical complex in Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia. The facility “will have 26 manufacturing units, and upon completion, will be one of the world’s largest integrated chemical facilities,” Thom says.
In 2014, Dow plans to hire a greater share of new graduates with bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees for positions in manufacturing and engineering, research and development, supply-chain management, marketing and sales, and other functions. It’s also looking for experienced candidates with degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering, who will still account for the majority of Dow’s hiring.
Typically, 60–70% of the new hires in the company’s manufacturing and engineering, supply-chain, and environment, health, and safety functions have a degree in chemical engineering. In Dow’s R&D function, about half of new hires are chemists while the rest are chemical engineers and materials scientists.
BASF’s hiring outlook for chemists and chemical engineers remains strong for 2014, says Tina Kao, vice president for talent development and strategy. Approximately 25% of the external hires the company has made to date in 2013 have been in these disciplines.
Demand continues to be strong in the R&D and engineering fields across all experience levels.
“In terms of geography, particularly with the petrochemical industry in the Gulf Coast, there is significant demand for all engineering disciplines,” Kao says.
ExxonMobil Chemical is also actively recruiting and hiring engineers and engineering graduates, including chemical engineers, according to spokeswoman Margaret Ross.
Pfizer, like other big pharma companies, has made major cuts to its workforce over the past several years. But that doesn’t mean these firms have stopped hiring chemists altogether. Pfizer’s medicinal chemistry program, for example, has been “hiring pretty steadily this year,” says Tony Wood, senior vice president of medicinal chemistry. He anticipates a modest increase in hiring next year, with most of the new hires filling slots at the company’s Groton, Conn., and La Jolla, Calif., sites. Many will be freshly minted Ph.D. and postdoc synthetic organic chemists, who are valued because they’ll possess the latest knowledge about developments in synthetic methodology, such as C–H bond activation, Wood explains.
Wood is looking for chemists who have demonstrated creativity, productivity, and an aptitude for team-based problem solving. Successful candidates tend to think deeply about their science and are able to “express a solid understanding, not just of what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it,” he says. They’re also aware of how their project fits in the context of work on the same problem by other researchers.
Pfizer is looking to enhance its in-house synthetic organic chemical capabilities to complement the talents of its contract research partners, Wood says. The goal is to build internal synthetic problem solving for particularly challenging molecules, he notes.
What’s the perspective from college campuses? Industry demand for chemistry Ph.D.s this year is running “a little higher than it was last year” at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, according to Stephenie Nagle, a graduate program coordinator who handles career services for the campus’s chemistry department. Some companies that haven’t come to campus for a couple of years “are now a lot more interested,” she says.
And in another good sign, three UW Madison students who interviewed this fall already have job offers in hand, even though they won’t graduate until May.
At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, demand for chemistry Ph.D.s is quite strong, says Lynn M. Guthrie-Libby, an assistant in the chemistry department who handles recruiting. “They’re interviewing and getting jobs at a very good rate. We’re seeing a lot of biomedical recruiting and a lot of companies interested in chemists proficient in organic synthesis.”
Part of the demand for MIT grad students is emanating from expansion of facilities in the Boston area, including a Novartis biomedical research building under construction right next to the MIT campus.
Other firms investing in the area include Johnson & Johnson, which opened a pharma research innovation center in Boston this year. Elsewhere in the U.S., J&J opened a similar facility in Menlo Park, Calif., earlier this year. Dow opened an innovation hub for advanced materials in Collegeville, Pa. BASF has expanded its Research Triangle Park, N.C., research facilities, and Syngenta is doing the same. And Monsanto is expanding its plant research facilities in St. Louis.
The job openings for chemists resulting from these companies’ investments will make little headway in comparison to the thousands of positions lost over the past five or six years, but they’re a start. And it can be hoped that the shale gas boom will provide for many more.
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