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A Tough Job Market Looms

It's business as usual for now; the future is less certain

by Corinne A. Marasco
November 3, 2008 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 86, ISSUE 44

THIS YEAR'S employment outlook ought to be labeled, "Caution: Unpredictable market ahead."

Last year, when C&EN assessed the job prospects for graduates looking for jobs in 2008, the consensus among employers was that hiring was going to be up and the signs for job seekers were positive. "Chemical scientists and engineers looking for jobs in 2008 will be greeted with a job market that is stronger than it has been in years," C&EN reported.

What a difference a year makes. Although the industrial representatives who spoke with C&EN this year report that their companies are hiring, they are doing so with a "wait and see" attitude toward a possibly weaker job market in 2009. The exception is chemical engineers, who continue to be in high demand at all degree levels.

The chemical industry isn't immune to economic downturns (C&EN, Oct. 6, pages 7 and 9), but it could take weeks, even months, for the Wall Street chaos to have a measurable impact on employment. Take, for example, the number of jobs posted on the ACS Careers website ( as one proxy measure. For the period Jan. 1 to Oct. 10, 1,033 jobs were posted. That's only slightly fewer than the 1,045 jobs posted for the same time period in 2007, so the economic downturn is not yet affecting industry hiring.

This year also saw significant business deals, such as Dow's announcement that it will acquire Rohm and Haas and Ashland's pending acquisition of Hercules (C&EN, Aug. 25, page 23), as well as major R&D realignments, for example, at Pfizer (C&EN, Sept. 1, page 27). The full impact of those changes on hiring probably won't show for some time, either.

RETIREMENT may be one likely casualty of the distressed economy. As C&EN reported in last year's outlook, companies plan for generational turnover in their hiring projections, and that remains a factor this year. With drops in the stock market corroding the value of pension plans, however, more workers may opt to delay retirement to attempt to recoup those losses.

"Which way are we going to move forward?" asks Nick Nikolaides, manager of doctoral recruiting and university relations for Procter & Gamble. "If lots of baby boomers retire, we'll need an incredible influx of new talent. If they're not ready to retire given the economy, then we keep moving forward and prepare for whichever way things go."

"The main thing to watch in the coming months is consolidation within the chemical industry and what that means for available talent."

For now, Nikolaides doesn't see a change in recruiting needs. The goal, he says, is to "maintain equilibrium despite the rocky economy." Analytical chemistry remains a focus for P&G when recruiting Ph.D. chemists; however, Ph.D. engineers—chemical, mechanical, materials science, and electrical—are being recruited in greater numbers at P&G across the board, from upstream R&D through manufacturing, he says.

Nikolaides adds that P&G's sustainability focus helps attract talented candidates. "Scientists can have pretty challenging technical careers, particularly when you throw in the challenges that sustainability can provide. In addition, we're looking for more well-rounded individuals these days," he says. "Not just solid technical skills but communication, collaboration, and similar skills people need to succeed."

Troy L. Vincent, vice president of global staffing and recruiting at W.R. Grace, agrees that the demand for technically skilled people is high, especially for chemists and chemical engineers, even though there might be "a slight softening" in the number of companies recruiting.

"Grace will be recruiting chemists and chemical engineers this year," he says. "The chemists will be more at the Ph.D. and master's levels, while the chemical engineering hires will be at the bachelor's level." As for specific fields, Grace is focused on inorganic chemistry, followed by specialized areas tied to its businesses.

Grace's recruiting is directed by the company's strategic plans for growth as it prepares to emerge from Chapter 11 reorganization. Vincent says that although the company's needs this year are the same as last year's, the timing and number of hires will be adjusted according to the economic climate. "The main thing to watch in the coming months is consolidation within the chemical industry and what that means for available talent as deals from the summer are finalized," he says.

Meanwhile, business conditions have already affected the job market in the pharmaceutical industry, where hiring is down from historic norms, according to Steven D. Young, vice president of basic research at Merck Research Laboratories. Although Merck has just announced elimination of 12% of its positions worldwide (C&EN Online Latest News, Oct. 27), the company is recruiting for chemists at all degree levels at its West Point, Pa., and Rahway, N.J., research sites, in part due to Merck's continuing interest in RNA interference. Merck will also be hiring B.S. and M.S. chemical and biochemical engineers in vaccines, therapeutic proteins, and sterile processing.

"Last year, our chemistry hiring was largely limited to replacement hires due to attrition," Young says. "This year, we're looking for organic chemists who have a background in synthesis and bioorganic chemistry, as well as chemists with biopolymer expertise. We're also interested in people with a chemical engineering or molecular biology background who have experience in expressing, purifying, or characterizing recombinant proteins."

Young adds that hiring in small-molecule development and manufacturing during the past few years has been to fill critical gaps and has consisted mostly of experienced people. He anticipates that new skill sets will help drive new areas of therapeutic research in proteins, small molecules, and vaccines.

GlycoFi, a Merck subsidiary in New Hampshire, is recruiting fermentation and bioprocess engineers, molecular biologists, and protein and analytical biochemists at all degree levels this year, according to Senior Director Natarajan Sethuraman.

Despite recent economic challenges, many opportunities still require chemists and chemical engineers, says Robin Lysek, a human resources central staffing manager for Air Products & Chemicals.

The company's needs this year are very similar to last year's, she says, and in some areas, "the need is greater due to growth in several business areas and due to the anticipated demographic changes."

Lysek says Air Products is recruiting both chemists and chemical engineers at all degree levels for projects in materials science, physical chemistry, energy, electrochemistry, and process engineering. At the Ph.D. level the company traditionally recruits both chemists and chemical engineers, but because of business needs, they're recruiting more Ph.D. chemical engineers this year. She adds that 90% of its job offers among new hires are accepted.

Chemical engineers will be "aggressively recruited" at Occidental Chemical in 2009, as well as mechanical and electrical engineers, according to company spokeswoman Stacey Crews. Students with strong academic performance and intern or co-op experience will be in demand as employers like OxyChem plan for the turnover associated with an aging workforce, she says.

"OxyChem's recruiting needs are indicative of a changing workforce within the chemical industry as a whole," she says. "As the baby boomers reach retirement age, the workforce is transitioning to a new generation.

"As the baby boomers reach retirement age, the workforce is transitioning to a new generation."

"THE CHALLENGE for higher education is to graduate people who want to learn how to operate complex chemical plants safely, responsibly, and ethically. Our challenge is to locate and retain them in order to develop the next generation of experts and leaders," she continues.

The petrochemical industry is also assessing the competition for qualified chemical engineers. "Chemical engineers are being snapped up by lots of different companies," says Cary W. Wilkins, director of recruitment for the Americas at Shell Chemicals. "Even within Shell they are very versatile and can fit into many different slots, given their excellent educational backgrounds."

Wilkins characterizes the overall market as very good for chemical engineers at all degree levels and for Ph.D. chemists, groups that Shell is recruiting. He says candidates with a strong foundation in catalysis and nanotechnology are "the most sought after." For chemists at the B.S. and M.S. levels, however, things are looking flat and are possibly declining, he adds.

Wilkins says Shell prefers to call the spots its candidates fill "talent positions" because "what we're looking for always goes beyond just their technical knowledge and aptitudes" to broader achievements. For example, is a candidate good at working in groups? Can the candidate look at a task or a challenge with a broad perspective, beyond the specifics?

Sue Sun-LaSovage, global university relations leader for Dow Chemical, also observes that competition is "fierce" for engineering graduates in the U.S. and Europe. "The competition remains strong in the entry-level job market because of the smaller pool of candidates," she says. "There is a more abundant supply in China and India."

Dow is recruiting this year for bachelor's- and master's-level chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineers. The company is also recruiting Ph.D. chemists with expertise in analytical, inorganic, organic, and polymer chemistry, as well as materials science. Sun-LaSovage says Dow's needs remain as strong as they have been during the past few years.

Since October, Dow recruiters have been interviewing on campuses of what the firm considers to be global strategic universities, Sun-LaSovage says. "The financial situation may be reflected more in next year's hiring than this year's, but it's too early to tell," she says. "We review our implementation plan on an annual basis to reflect the business condition and economic environment." She adds that hiring plans are typically finalized in May or June and executed between September and December each year.

Last year was a successful recruiting year for Eastman Chemical, workforce planning and staffing manager Sharon Cooper reports. She characterizes the market this year as "still good but not as strong" as in 2007. "We had many positions to fill last year due to growth, and we did very well on campus due to the high demand for technical talent. Because we were able to hire in advance of the need, our focus is on a few entry-level positions and positions with specialized needs," she says.

Eastman is looking to hire B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. chemical engineers and Ph.D. chemists, Cooper says, particularly in analytical and organic chemistry. Although the primary focus is on recruiting chemical engineers, Eastman continues to have needs for mechanical and electrical engineers. She believes there is still a "significant demand for chemical engineers," perhaps not so much in the pure chemical industry as in the oil and gas industry.

Cooper notes that the number of people retiring has been lower than Eastman's workforce-planning models had predicted, "which is good from a knowledge management perspective." She adds that she feels good about the firm's ability to attract the talent it needs as evidenced by its recruiting in recent years.

John A. Larock, staffing manager for engineering and operations, and Emily Niu, Ph.D. and science staffing manager, both at DuPont, agree that the job market continues to look good for new graduates. Larock says the company's needs have increased overall for the past few years, primarily because of company growth and employee retirements. Together, those constitute the majority of positions that DuPont is trying to fill.

DuPont is actively looking for chemists and chemical engineers at all degree levels. Within R&D, the company is looking for expertise in polymer and organic chemistry, materials science, and biosciences, according to Niu. DuPont is also recruiting bachelor's and master's degree chemists and biologists.

According to Larock, bachelor's and master's degree engineers are being recruited in process engineering, process development, and project engineering. "Innovation drives us and our products," he says. "Each year, a large percentage of our products are new, and we need that technological understanding and capability." Niu adds that in addition to technical skills, DuPont looks for inventiveness and a drive for innovation.

How the economic challenges will play out is yet to be determined, but Larock says of the firm, "We're moving ahead."

THOSE ECONOMIC challenges, however, are starting to affect university chemical sciences departments. In light of volatile financial markets this past month, the National Association of Colleges & Employers (NACE) recently re-polled employers that had provided hiring projections in August. The result: Compared with their earlier projections, responding employers expect to decrease their hiring levels by 1.6%. However, in comparison with their actual hires from the class of 2008, respondents expect to hire about 1.3% more graduates from the class of 2009.


"Overall, hiring looks flat for now, and some employers are indicating some movement to cut back," says Marilyn Mackes, NACE executive director. "In August, approximately one-third of employers said they were going to trim their college hiring; in our current poll, however, 52% said they were going to adjust their college hiring downward."

"Turnout was small, compared to years past," says Chris Smith, who handles recruiting for the chemistry and chemical engineering division at California Institute of Technology. "This year, about five companies came to recruit, which is fewer than the last several years." Last year, most people who interviewed were able to find employment with the company they were interested in, she says.

Patricia L. Blum, director of career counseling and placement services in the School of Chemical Sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says that although several companies have scheduled campus interviews that have not done so in the past, the number of companies interviewing is down about one-third, and the number of students signing up for interviews is also down in some areas.

Last year, she says, "hiring was strong early in the fall and then tapered off. During that time, a few Ph.D. students decided to take postdocs instead of entering industry, but those who waited out the lag did eventually land good positions."

Both Blum and Smith attribute some of that decline to the economy. Smith says many of the companies that usually come through are not hiring this year. She adds that the division is short four faculty members in organic and inorganic chemistry, which affects how many students are available on the job market. In Blum's experience, several of the companies that normally recruit are in the middle of hiring freezes, are lowering hiring numbers, or are sending fewer recruiters than initially planned.

Alix Lamia, chemistry program manager at Columbia University, has also noticed that recruiters are fewer than usual this year, even though recruiting and interviewing are progressing as usual. "The recruiters who did not participate mentioned they will not have job openings this year," she says. "For example, one firm scheduled a visit and then canceled due to a major restructuring."

At Columbia, 12 recruiters signed up this year, compared with an average of 19 in previous years. Lamia attributes the changes she sees to the economy, which affects the number of available jobs, and low turnover, which further limits the number of job openings.

At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Michael T. Crimmins, chairman of the chemistry department, reports that campus recruiting seems "about normal" but that the number of jobs is lower and more are available in smaller, start-up companies.

The changes, he says, are a result of the "entire pharmaceutical industry in a period of major reorganization and general downsizing. A significant amount of their functions have been outsourced to China and India, creating many new jobs in those developing countries but reducing the opportunities in the U.S. and Europe."

IN CONTRAST, Timothy B. Luzader of Purdue University offers some better news. Luzader, director of the Center for Career Opportunities, reports that campus interviewing appears "as robust as it was this time last year. Our interview space is booked solid through late October. Early job fairs on campus were sold out," and there were waiting lists of companies that wanted to participate.

In 2007–08, the number of employers recruiting on campus was steady compared with the previous year, whereas the number of interviews was slightly down, Luzader says. He attributes the decrease in interviews more to student selectivity than economic softening. "Many students feel that accepting a full-time offer from a company where they interned is a reasonable option, so they're likely to restrict their interviews only to companies that most strongly interest them," he says.

In a May 2007 survey of all of Purdue's bachelor's degree recipients, Luzader reports that 94% had confirmed postgraduate plans for employment, further study, or other plans such as the Peace Corps. Among chemical engineering graduates, 96% had confirmed postgraduate plans.

For now, "campus recruiting belies concerns in the economy," he says. "But history has shown on-campus recruitment does not taper off until six to nine months after an economic downturn. If that trend holds true, then the outlook will be a bit gloomier than it has been in the recent past."

In any job market—down markets included—the advice to graduates never changes. Be more flexible in the job search. Use resources and contacts that are available on campus. Employers are still hiring, even if they aren't coming on campus, so networking and direct contact are important. Know yourself well enough to find a company that is aligned with your goals and values.

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