Issue Date: January 5, 2004
Imagine an industrial chemist: perhaps a white lab coat, hands in the hood, eyes on a column, lab book open? Actually, the person you've just pictured is most likely to be a chemical technician. Over the past 10 to 20 years, the running of industrial laboratories and manufacturing plants has fallen increasingly to technicians. That trend has only been strengthened by industrial mergers, downsizing, and a slow economy. And an anticipated shortage of technicians in the coming five to 10 years, as baby boomers retire, is widely expected to be a difficult crunch.
Chemical technicians emerged about 30 to 40 years ago, says Brian Kohler, president of the Canadian Society for Chemical Technology. As instrumental chemistry became more and more indispensable in the laboratory, "there was a recognition that a lot of training was going into people who knew how to run the newer instruments: the gas chromatographs and the HPLCs. These people represented a new group of chemical professionals." Kohler says.
And that new group of chemical professionals has, over time, carved a place for itself. Chemical technicians make up one of the three main groupings of the Chemical Institute of Canada. (The other two comprise chemists and chemical engineers.) The American Chemical Society has a Division of Chemical Technicians and organizes technician affiliate groups, which meet regularly and provide career and network opportunities for technicians.
Many technicians believe that they have struggled for legitimacy among chemists but that they are making progress. In 2001, for example, an ACS bylaw was changed to give full membership to technicians with a two-year associate's degree and five years of work experience.
Chemical technicians come in two varieties: process and laboratory. "Process technicians, sometimes called operators, are the ones who turn the wrenches, spin the dials, and manufacture the products--chemicals, polymers, pharmaceuticals, you name it--out in the plants," says Sam Stevenson, the ACS staff liaison for the ACS Committee on Technician Affairs. "The laboratory technicians are involved in a number of different fronts: research and development, efforts for new products, and modifying existing products. They are also involved heavily in the application labs."
A MAJOR DIFFERENCE between the two is their environments--plant versus laboratory. And they work on different scales--drum versus beaker. Process technicians also tend to have longer and later shifts, and they get paid more.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2002 chemical laboratory technicians made, on average, $39,000 a year. Chemical plant and system operators, or process technicians, made between $38,000 and $44,000 a year, based on hourly wages. But process technicians often take home significantly more money than that because they have more opportunities for earning overtime pay.
The chemical and petroleum companies on the Gulf Coast, with their offshore oil rigs and 24-hour refineries, pay technicians especially well. Department of Labor statistics consistently show Louisiana and Texas as the states with the highest wages for both chemical and process technicians.
A chemical technician's day-to-day work spans a wide range. The huge variety of chemical products manufactured in the world makes for the huge variety of tasks for technicians. Certainly, in today's laboratories and plants, technicians do far more than man the machine, according to members of the ACS Committee on Technician Affairs.
"The depth of the technical work that the technicians do has been increasing dramatically," says Connie J. Murphy, a senior research specialist at Dow Chemical in Midland, Mich., who worked as a technician in polymer chemistry for roughly 20 years. "It is really beyond what chemists were doing 10 years ago. A lot of it has to do with the growing technology, but the expectations for technicians are much higher than they were 10 years ago. There are still jobs that are very routine, and there always will be. But in general they are becoming much more complex. Now part-time high school and or college students and contractors are doing a lot of the routine work."
Chemical technicians do chemical synthesis, processing, characterization, and all the troubleshooting that goes along with that. They set up and run reactions. They record and analyze data. They search literature, write reports, and give presentations.
"I wouldn't say all of the lab work, but a huge majority of the lab work is now done by technicians," says John H. Engelman, now at S. C. Johnson & Son, who worked for 39 years in a variety of technician positions at Dow Corning and Dow Chemical. "When I started maybe 40 years ago, most technicians didn't go into research. If a technician did, it would be in an analytical lab, where they would do a test or two. Or they would go into a quality control lab at a plant where they would do some testing of a product."
A large portion of the technician's training comes on the job. "We did a study at Dow," says Bob Krystosek, a technician in combinatorial chemistry at Dow Chemical in Midland and chair of the ACS Division of Chemical Technicians. "Essentially we asked, 'Did school prepare you for your job?' and almost everyone said, 'No.' You walk into a project, and it is so far beyond what people in academics have seen that they can't possibly prepare you for it." Yet, he acknowledges, a new hire does need to come into the workforce with a set of fundamental, adaptable skills.
"You do need math skills; you need chemistry skills; you need basic computer skills," Krystosek says. And you increasingly need good speaking and writing skills, according to Elizabeth Poole, a technical associate at Shell in Houston. "I know those are soft skills. But you need to be able to communicate. Technicians now are being required to give a lot more presentations and write reports. I never wrote reports when I first came into Shell. Now I do all my own report writing."
Of course, the majority of the technicians' day is still spent doing chemistry with their hands. It helps to have a natural curiosity and a desire to get your hands into things. "If I walk a job candidate through the lab," Krystosek says, "and they are full of questions and they want to know how things are working, that goes a long way to making them a potential hire. Curiosity is a big thing we look for. My organic chemistry grades weren't the greatest. One of the interviewers asked me about it, and I was honest. They were more impressed by my enthusiasm and curiosity than they were with my grades."
CURIOSITY is helpful because the best technicians are like good detectives: They notice subtle details. "Techs seem to be very good at this. They see something unusual or just not normal, and they bring it to the attention of the chemist they are working with," Krystosek says. In fact, because the technicians are the ones doing and seeing the work, they are very often the ones who make discoveries of new knowledge.
To gain these needed skills, most chemical technicians complete an associate's degree in an applied science technology program. Gone are the days of hiring high school students as technicians, says recent graduate Daphne Eggers, a senior lab technician in specialty coatings product development at Eastman Chemical in Kingsport, Tenn. Industry is "looking for people educated in the latest technology and who are highly motivated," she says. "Technicians of today hold associate's degrees and some hold bachelor's degrees."
It's true that many hold bachelor's degrees; in fact, some companies hire only B.S. chemists to fill their technician positions. "The pharmaceutical industry tends to take B.S. and above and make technicians out of them," ACS's Stevenson says. "That could lead to difficulties in retention of chemists, since a lot of them tend to go back to school." Yet it emphasizes the trend that more and more is expected of the technician for the chemical industry.
Other companies, on the other hand, prefer to hire graduates of community colleges with a two-year associate's degree in applied science (A.A.S.). "The A.A.S. chemists are, in my opinion anyway, much better prepared as entry employees as technicians than anybody else," Stevenson says. "The reason for that is they have a whole lot more experience in actually doing the kind of analyses that they would wind up doing in industry. B.S. chemists tend to gloss over some of that, and they get more theory than they get hands-on."
A good two-year chemical technology program provides, most of all, laboratory time. "Our students spend 18 hours a week directly in the laboratory, learning instrumentation and techniques," says Tom Mines, chemical technology program coordinator at St. Louis Community College. The school, which graduates 10 to 20 students a year, has gas chromatographs, high-pressure liquid chromatographs, nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers with carbon-13 capabilities, UV-visible spectrometers, atomic absorption spectrometers, a graphite furnace atomic absorption spectrometer, GC-mass spectrometers, and capillary electrophoresis, he describes.
"I say to our students, 'You'll never see a graduate student sitting between you and that instrument.' " Mines adds that he knows his students may not work with these exact instruments, and many will need to learn the ins and outs of procedures and instruments entirely different from the ones they train on. But "what I'm trying to teach them is the art of troubleshooting while getting the data, doing the calculations, and reporting the results.
"I see our students as laboratory generalists. They can do analytical, environmental, industrial, or biotechnology work. I think with a little training, they can go anywhere. Their training has been so broad, and they have so much hands-on that they really do have a degree of confidence about what they can do. They are adaptable."
The average age of students at St. Louis is 29 or 30, Mines says. More than 50% are women. Rarely, Mines says, do students come directly from high school into a chemical technology program.
"They are coming from the school of hard knocks. They've been out flipping burgers, and they come back saying, 'I know what it means to not have an education.' " He says a chemical technology program offers a solid degree that will raise their salaries and get them quickly back into the workforce.
Chemical technology programs often face difficulties in both recruitment and retention, Mines says. Many students struggle to finish the two-year degree because they pay their own way. "I guess it is the nature of community colleges," Mines says, "but it is frustrating to find students who have the ability to succeed, but the life they are living outside the classroom is not conducive to the educational experience. They've got kids at home. They've got spouses who aren't helping or supporting them. They're working 30 to 40 hours during the week and on weekends just to make ends meet."
School may be hard to juggle, but for single parents and others with many demands outside of work, the job of chemical technician is actually a good fit, Murphy says. "A job as a chemical technician lends itself well to having balance in your life. It's a job that you can leave at work. A chemist or an engineer who is a project manager very often ends up working extra hours or taking work home, whereas a technician is typically a nonexempt employee. If they work overtime, they get paid overtime. They are not expected to take work home. A technician's job is really a nice job for someone who has other things going on in their lives, because they can leave work at work."
MOST STUDENTS, Mines adds, like to stay close to family. They don't want to move away to find work. Perhaps for that reason, firms tend to recruit from local community technology programs and tend to not advertise nationally for their technicians. In the St. Louis area, Mines says, there are a number of chemical companies, including Mallinckrodt, Solutia, Wyeth, Monsanto, Sigma-Aldrich, and Ethyl Corp. Many students have work lined up before they graduate; most find work within three months of graduation.
Yet other regions have not fared as well during the slow economy. Because chemical companies slowed hiring, many chemical technology programs have shut down in the past few years, Eastman's Eggers says. She graduated from Northeast State Technical Community College in 1999. She was the top of her class and the only one hired by the largest chemical employer in her region, Eastman Chemical. Since then, Eastman has picked up a few of her classmates, but the program at Northeast State is now inactive.
Eggers calls the current job market in her region "fierce." And in Texas, "it's not too great right now," Shell's Poole says. "A lot of opportunities have dried up in the South. A lot of companies have moved."
Of course, finding work is hard for everyone nowadays, not just chemical technicians. The economy has begun to see glimmers of a turnaround in unemployment; November's unemployment rate dropped to 5.9%, its lowest level in eight months. But many of the chemical industries are not yet participating in an economic recovery. According to Krystosek of Dow, "The job market is worse for chemical technicians because the chemical industry is having such a rough time. We haven't seen a new chemical technician hired off the street in a while."
But when the chemical industry does begin to hire again, the job market could do a quick about-face. The baby boomer generation is at the verge of retiring. When they do, jobs for chemical technicians are expected to be plentiful. A lot of the hundreds of thousands of technicians are baby boomers, Stevenson says. "So there is going to be a big shortage in the next five to 10 years of skilled workers in chemistry-based industries."
Then the market will be fierce in terms of companies competing for technicians, Eggers says. This is a good time to enter a technician program, she says. In two years, she predicts, with a turnaround in the economy and fewer programs graduating technicians, there will be opportunities.
"The profession of chemical technology is not one that comes immediately to mind to a lot of people in high school--even though maybe it should if they were looking for a pretty good guarantee of a well-paid career and not much trouble getting employment. It probably doesn't enjoy the profile it should. Some of the community colleges are refocusing or rebranding themselves as biotechnology or environmental technology programs. And yet, essentially, these people are pretty much chemical technologists with a slightly different emphasis," says Kohler at the Canadian Society for Chemical Technology.
It is difficult for high school students to get past the stereotype of the geeky scientist, says St. Louis Community College's Mines. Those that do tend to go directly into four-year or graduate programs. Perhaps a rebranding of the technician will attract more students into a field that will soon need them. With the growth in both the breadth and the depth of a chemical technician's work, the chemical industry can use them.
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