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A New Normal

Record unemployment requires a realistic attitude and creative thinking

by Linda R. Raber
November 2, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 44

Credit: Department of Energy
Argonne National Laboratory chemist mixes a coating for synthesized polymer nanospheres.
Credit: Department of Energy
Argonne National Laboratory chemist mixes a coating for synthesized polymer nanospheres.


A New Normal

The past year has been one of devastating job loss for working people in the U.S., who are now experiencing nearly 10% unemployment. Although chemical scientists are faring better than the public-at-large, they are also out of work at record levels.

According to data collected by ACS for its 2009 salary survey, which will be published next year, ACS members are experiencing unemployment at 3.8%, up from 2.3% last year, and 2.4% in 2007. In the nearly 40 years the society has been collecting employment information from its members, unemployment has never been so high.

Slightly more than half of ACS members work in manufacturing, and their situation is considerably worse than it is for their peers in academic or other industrial positions. The national unemployment rate for chemical manufacturing climbed from 2.9% in 2007 to 4.3% in 2008 to 7.7% as of this past March.

If every cloud has a silver lining, it’s fair to say that the lining is getting thinner and thinner. Senior Correspondent Ivan Amato interviewed university recruiters, placement officers at companies, bench chemists, and employment consultants to get their take on the year to come. Amato reports that the collective message is a “sobering, tough-love slap in the face: Get over the denial and do what you have to do to adapt to the new normal.”

Eventually, employment has to pick up. It’s just a question of when. “People still want stuff,” ACS Assistant Director of Career Management & Development David Harwell tells Amato. “Eventually, people will have to make the stuff” people want. And when demand for the products of chemistry starts to rise, the chemical industry must be fully staffed with functioning and productive employees to meet that demand.

Workers in their 20s, who are now entering the workforce, are part of a cohort informally called Generation Y. The chemical industry courts the few among this group’s best and brightest who are choosing chemistry careers. Chemical companies know that members of this generation are valuable, but different: They are demanding in ways their older coworkers are not, reports Senior Editor Susan J. Ainsworth. She describes how companies are changing to attract and retain these future leaders.

Finally, opportunities for chemists in the government have traditionally been overshadowed by those in academia and industry, but that landscape may be changing, reports Associate Editor Linda Wang. “Keep an open mind,” she advises. The government offers numerous opportunities for chemists, but the job search and application process can be lengthy. Nevertheless, “there’s no better time to start researching the possibilities than now,” she reports.



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