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Salaries And Jobs

Salary prognosis for working chemists is for steady gains, but the job outlook is more uncertain

by Michael Heylin
November 6, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 45

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The employment situation and outlook for American Chemical Society members in the U.S. domestic workforce is by no means a disaster, but it is not great either. It remains uncertain and complex.

Despite some glimmerings of improvement in the overall U.S. job situation over the past 12 months, the percentage of ACS chemists in the domestic workforce who did not have a full-time jobs as of March this year was 8.7%. This number was down, but only modestly, from its all-time high of 9.2% one year earlier. And it was well above the recent low of 5.4% in 2001.

The percentages of 2004-05 chemistry graduates who had full-time jobs by October 2005—36% of bachelor's, 48% of master's, and 38% of Ph.D.s—were all close to year-earlier levels. But they were all well below the levels for the 1999-2000 class in the fall of 2000 of 44%, 62%, and 50%, respectively.

The outlook for chemists' salaries is a little better. Individual chemists in the workforce who have not changed jobs continue to post current-dollar salary gains of close to 5% per year. However, median constant-dollar salaries for working chemists as a group remain below recent highs, as do constant-dollar salaries for new chemistry graduates.

Growth in the total number of workers on payrolls in the U.S. since its previous peak in February 2001 has been belated and unusually slow. Most of the gains that are being posted are for jobs for college graduates.

These are some of the findings that can be gleaned from ACS's 2006 salary and employment survey of its domestic members, ACS's survey of 2005 chemistry graduates, and monthly data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Both of ACS's annual surveys—of its members in the domestic workforce and of new chemistry graduates—are under the purview of the ACS Committee on Economic & Professional Affairs. Their latest versions were conducted by Janel Kasper-Wolfe, research analyst with ACS's Department of Member Research & Technology.

Comparison of the demographics of working chemists and of new chemistry graduates brings out the various evolutions under way in the makeup of the chemical profession. For instance, 35% of working bachelor's degree chemists are women. This number will continue to grow because women now earn more than 50%-52% in 2005—of chemistry bachelor's degrees. At the Ph.D. level, 21% of working chemists and a higher 33% of 2005 graduates are women. For master's, the corresponding breakdown is 34% and 51%, respectively.

The data also suggest continued growth in the number of blacks and Hispanics in chemistry, albeit from low levels. Six percent of 2005 bachelor's chemistry graduates were black. This compares with 2.8% of the current chemistry workforce who have bachelor's degrees and are black. The numbers for Hispanics are similar: 6.0% and 3.6%, respectively.

By citizenship, 86% of working Ph.D. chemists are U.S. citizens. This figure is likely to fall, as only 62% of 2005 Ph.D. chemistry graduates are U.S. citizens. This number reflects the high 32% of Ph.D. graduates who were on temporary visas.

The median salary for all chemists as a group of $85,000 from the 2006 survey was up from the $83,000 from the 2005 survey. This was a 2.4% gain, and for a group as large and slow changing from year-to-year as the chemical profession, it was essentially a measure of inflation.

The pay gain for bachelor's was from $63,000 to $65,200, or 3.5%; for master's, from $74,000 to $77,500, or 4.7%; and for Ph.D.s, from $93,000 to $95,000, or 2.2%. However, in terms of constant 2006 dollars, all the 2006 salaries were below the highs of $66,900, $79,000, and $99,700, respectively, set two or three years earlier.

Median salaries derived from responses to the question on the 2006 survey questionnaire asking respondents for their salaries as of both March 1, 2005, and March, 1, 2006, are a better guide to how chemists as individuals are faring. They show a larger overall gain of from $83,000 in 2005 to $86,900 in 2006, or 4.7%. This rate of gain reflects not only inflation but also increases due to promotions and growing experience and responsibilities. And it is in line with the average annual gain for the past decade.

As is always the case, gains were larger for younger chemists, 8.1% for those between 20 and 29, than for older chemists, 3.3% for those between 60 and 69. Gains in 2006 were also larger for women chemists, who tend to be younger, 5.0%, than for men, 4.6%. They were also lower for Ph.D.s, who tend to be older, at 4.4%.

The employment situation for chemists is always dependent on a host of factors. Some are related to the chemical enterprise; others transcend chemistry.

A chemistry-related factor is the state of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, both major employers of chemists. Total pharmaceutical employment, not just chemists, rose from 229,000 in 1996 to 297,000 in 2006, for a healthy 68,000 gain. However, 56,000 of this gain was realized by 2001 and only 12,000 since.

Over this same period, total employment by the rest of the chemical industry has declined from 759,000 in 1996 to 603,000 in 2006, for a jarring 156,000 loss.

Total manufacturing employment, the source of jobs for 51% of chemists, has plunged by more than 3 million, from 17.3 million to 14.2 million, over the past decade, and it is only this year showing signs of stabilizing.

The volume of classified employment advertising in C&EN and the level of activity on ACS's Chemjobs website provide reasonably credible, if not definite, indications of the state of the job market for chemists.

Through September this year, just about 200 pages of such advertising have been carried in the magazine. This is down from 226 pages for the same period last year, and it suggests a total of about 300 pages for the full year of 2006. This will be the fourth consecutive depressed year. In 2000, there was a record of just over 600 pages of classified advertising. By 2003, it had dropped to just over 300.

The Chemjobs website hasn't been running long enough to have a history of its activity in good and bad times. But the number of jobs posted on it over 12-month periods has declined to 4,358 for the past 12 months from 5,573 for the same period three years earlier.

An employment factor that transcends chemistry is the very slow recent growth in nonfarm payrolls, generally regarded as the best measure of employment. In the five years and seven months since their previous peak in February 2001, nonfarm payrolls have grown by only 3.1 million, from 132.5 million to 135.6 million. Over the same period after the peak prior to this, in June 1990, payrolls grew by 8.4 million, from 109.8 million to 118.2 million. And during the 1980s job upsurge, the corresponding increase was 9.3 million.

The count for private employment shows the same profile, with gains of 8.8 million in the six years after its 1990 peak and a more modest 2.3 million increase since its 2000 peak.

Another transcending factor is pending changes in the profile of the U.S. population. According to Census Bureau data, the number of children up to age 17 will grow modestly from 73.6 million in 2005 to 77.0 million in 2015. Those of college age, ages 18 to 24, will increase only from 29.2 million to 30.0 million over the period. The number of people age 25 to 44 won't increase much either, from 83.2 million to 84.9 million. Almost all the growth will be for those age 45 to 64, from 72.8 million to 83.7 million, and for those of retirement age 65 and older, from 36.7 million to 46.8 million.

This pattern seems to indicate that those between about 20 and 30 today will be in high demand in the employment market for the next 10 years or so. Those over about 40 years old today may well be in excess supply by 2015.

A positive sign for chemists is the growing percentage of all jobs in the U.S. held by those with at least a bachelor's degree. Of all people employed who are 25 years and older, 29% had at least a bachelor's degree in 1996. Today, it is 33%. Of the 15.9 million increase in all workers 25 years old and older from 1996 to 2006, 10.3 million are accounted for by those with college degrees and 3.3 million by those with associate degrees. This leaves very slim pickings for those without any degree.

Fringe benefits were examined for the first time since 1998 in the 2006 ACS salary and employment survey. The data gathered indicated little change over these years in the availability of benefits to ACS members with full-time jobs.

A range of 29 benefits involving paid leave, retirement and savings, medical plans, and insurance were available to an average of 77% of 2006 respondents. This number was up from an average of 74% of respondents in 1998. For both surveys, the availability of employee medical coverage was at 99% and for family medical coverage it was at 98%.

The average availability of nine medical benefits moved from 78% in 1998 to 83% in 2006, while the percentage of employers paying for them fully fell from 21% to 14%. The percent paid fully by the employee slipped also, from 15% to 14%. The growth has been in programs paid jointly by employer and employee. The survey did not explore the extent of any such shift in the balance of who paid what in these cases.

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