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Finding the People to Make Industry Work

U.K. skills report picks out needs echoed by other European countries

August 23, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 34

An important step in maintaining a skilled workforce for the chemical industry is attracting young students to the sciences.
An important step in maintaining a skilled workforce for the chemical industry is attracting young students to the sciences.

It seems obvious: having a highly skilled workforce is crucial to the success of the chemistry-using industries. But how to ensure a continuing supply of skilled workers is not so obvious. That is why the Skills Network Group of the U.K.'s Chemistry Leadership Council (CLC) tackled the subject in its new report, "Skills for the 21st Century Chemicals Industry." And although the report is written for the U.K., it addresses concerns felt throughout the European chemical industry.

According to Gareth James, who chairs the skills network, the group's work does not stop with the publication of the report. The report, he notes, "has laid out the industry's agenda more clearly--now it needs to be carried forward" by the country's "chemistry-using industries." The group, he adds, uses that phrase in an effort to create a much wider understanding of the chemical industry's key role in supplying many other industries. "We have to get the linkage through," he says.

The report carries a set of recommendations to two groups that are essential for a sustainable future, James says. One is the industry itself, which, he points out, must become more effective in speaking with a coherent, single voice in setting out future needs. The other group is Cogent, the employer-led skills council set up by the government to act for chemicals, polymers, oil and gas, and nuclear industries.

The report points out that "the chemicals industry has significant skills gaps at both plant operator and [college] graduate levels. It is likely that in 10 years' time it will need fewer but more highly skilled and technology-literate employees who will be expected to operate more flexibly and across existing skills boundaries. But at present, the industry has too few people trained and working to a minimum standard." Improving the skills of the chemical industry workforce--"upskilling" as the report calls it--is "a major challenge for the industry."

Moreover, the report notes, there is a sharp decline in the number of students studying chemistry and the chemical sciences. "For an industry that relies on innovation to deliver added value, this is of real concern," the report says, adding that the decline in students is directly affecting university chemistry courses.

Even in top-tier universities, concern is developing, says Graham Richards, chairman of the department of chemistry at Oxford University. Oxford has maintained its yearly student enrollment, he says, "but the ratio of applicants to places is about 1.5 to 1," lower than it used to be. "If we look at the best people studying chemistry, they all want to read medicine now," he notes.

THE REPORT made six basic recommendations, with target dates for action ranging from the end of this year to the middle of 2006.

◾ Cogent, working with industry through the Skills Network Group, should develop case studies from exemplary companies to quantify the benefits of training to companies' bottom lines.

◾ CLC, on behalf of the chemical industry, should support Cogent with the clear proviso that Cogent increase the resources it devotes to the chemical industry. Cogent must then ensure that there is a comprehensive "road map" setting out the industry's future skills needs and the mechanisms by which these needs will be met.

◾ Cogent should develop a "gold standard" that covers the skills needs associated with sustainable development, productivity, and innovation, with special focus on upskilling. Cogent should clearly articulate the specific skills and competencies needed, as well as the resources required to achieve them. Companies and training providers should then work together to deliver accredited training programs. And Cogent should seek to persuade the government to align funding with accredited qualifications under the banner of the gold standard for the industry.

◾ CLC must publicly support a more diverse workforce in the chemical industry and encourage all stakeholders to set the business case for diversity in the workplace. To support this leadership, Cogent and the unions should work with the appropriate agencies to develop clear guidance on the development of an inclusive culture for the industry. Individual companies should positively embrace this inclusive culture and formally commit to putting the guidance into practice.

◾ CLC needs to issue clear statements on the breadth of opportunities offered by the chemical industry in the 21st century. It needs to work with teachers' organizations to formulate advice to government on how to encourage the best students to follow a career in the chemical sciences and engineering. Moreover, CLC needs to articulate to universities exactly what the industry is looking for in university degree and postgraduate courses in chemistry, the chemical sciences, and engineering, as well as changes that need to be made.

◾ CLC should work with the industry to identify future science, engineering, and technology needs as well as the associated competences needed. Results should be articulated to government and professional bodies--for example, to the Royal Society for Chemistry and the Institution of Chemical Engineers--to influence the content of chemical science, engineering, and technology education. They should then be incorporated into the gold standard.

SOME OF THE points mirror actions being taken elsewhere in Europe. For example, in the Netherlands, where a drop-off in the number of students in chemistry has been ringing alarm bells for several years, the Association of the Dutch Chemical Industry (VNCI) is already taking a number of actions.

As VNCI's training specialist Fennegien Brouwer-Keij, manager for education and research, points out, "Like other countries, the chemical industry in the Netherlands needs a highly skilled staff and is a source of indirect and direct employment at a relatively high level." Consequently, she says, "on behalf of its members, VNCI is negotiating with the regular and technical universities and schools for higher vocational education concerning the skills set needed by young graduates who want to work in the industry. We are in discussion with government representatives and politicians concerning these issues as well."

There are already several results. For example, VNCI has launched initiatives to improve a program combining work and study on several levels, from schools for vocational education up to the Ph.D. level.

VNCI is developing an applied sciences doctoral program at Utrecht University and a dual course in chemistry and chemical engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology. Moreover, the association awards scholarships to promising science students entering university.

"We also put a lot of effort into promoting the chemical industry as a very interesting and well-paid business full of career opportunities," Brouwer-Keij adds. For example, "this year we are promoting, for the second time, the chemical working field at the national education fair for high school students," in cooperation with universities and members of VNCI.

And at least twice a year, she adds, VNCI organizes a "meet the boss" between the chief executive of a chemical company and chemistry students at local high schools. Students and bosses have the opportunity, she observes, to discuss the value of chemistry and the chemical industry.

Pinpointing the need for highly skilled staff is becoming increasingly important, she says. VNCI will soon start researching and monitoring the chemical industry's labor-market needs in cooperation with the Dutch Society of Chemistry and the Research Centre for Education & the Labour Market at Maastricht University.

Eventually, though, solving the industry's problems will be the job of all stakeholders. As Barry Stickings, chairman of CLC and chairman of BASF in the U.K., puts it, the CLC report "presents clear challenges to our industries, to the Sector Skills Councils, to government, and to the Chemistry Leadership Council itself. We all need to work together to deliver these recommendations."


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