Issue Date: November 7, 2011
Anemic Recovery Restrains Hiring
U.S. workers have had to cope with a rough-and-tumble job market for the past four years, and it’s not clear that 2012 will be much better.
The Great Recession officially ended more than two years ago, but unemployment remains stubbornly high. After peaking in October 2009 at 10.1% on a seasonally adjusted basis, it dropped to a low of 8.8% this March and has been fluctuating between 9.0 and 9.2% since then, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Given that dismal record, it’s hardly surprising that nearly half the 14.0 million people who are unemployed have been jobless for 27 weeks or more. Looking ahead, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that the unemployment rate won’t drop below 8% until 2014.
Chemists have suffered right along with other U.S. workers. Surveys of American Chemical Society members show that unemployment among chemists and chemical engineers reached 3.9% in 2009—considerably higher than the 2.3–2.4% rate seen in 2007–08. “Even though it’s still a much better story than for the U.S. as a whole,” that degree of joblessness is “still quite significant to chemists,” says Elizabeth C. McGaha, manager for the society’s Department of Research & Member Insights, which carries out the surveys.
The situation has been even worse for new graduates than for chemists and chemical engineers as a group, McGaha says. The unemployment rate for new grads, which was 7.2% in 2007, jumped to 9.5% in 2008 and 11.4% in 2009, according to the ACS Survey of New Graduates.
The pressure appears to have eased slightly in 2010. Unemployment for new graduates was 10.7%, while that for ACS chemists and chemical engineers as a group was 3.8%. Nevertheless, McGaha says that “we’ll need to see the 2011 data before suggesting any stabilization.”
Her caution stems in part from uncertainty about the reasons for the decline in unemployment. For instance, did the decline result from laid-off chemists finding new jobs as opposed to quitting the job market in favor of additional schooling or retirement? McGaha’s team hopes to tackle these questions in coming years.
The sector that’s taken the hardest hit since the recession began is the pharmaceutical industry, which has cut thousands of positions in the U.S. as a result of the expiration of patent protection on several blockbuster drugs, outsourcing, and other pressures.
However, job cuts in pharma may be declining. Those announced during the first three quarters of 2011 totaled 19,076, according to the outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. For the same period in 2010, 43,334 job cuts were announced, and in the first three quarters of 2009, pharma job cut announcements totaled 58,583.
In the chemical industry, announced jobs cuts stood at 2,447 during the first three quarters of 2011. During the same period in 2010, they reached 1,716, and in the first three quarters of 2009, job cut announcements totaled 54,219.
Other indicators suggest that the job market may be stabilizing. For instance, preliminary figures indicate employment in the chemical manufacturing sector in September 2011 totaled 784,900 on a seasonally adjusted basis, up 1.4% from the prior month and up 0.4% from September 2010, according to BLS.
Trends for the coming year are hard to predict. “Economists are divided,” says T. Kevin Swift, chief economist for the American Chemistry Council (ACC). “Some feel that we’ll skirt a recession, but it will be slow growth. Some feel that we’re going to slip back into a recession.
“If demand falls off, so would production and probably employment,” Swift says. “But offsetting that to a large extent” is revitalized petrochemical development. Indeed, 11 companies have already announced they will build, expand, or restart integrated petrochemical facilities in North America over the next seven years or so, according to the chemical consulting firm Chemical Market Associates Inc. (CMAI).
These projects are being enabled by competitively priced feedstocks of natural gas liquids (NGLs), primarily ethane, which the petrochemical facilities will use to produce ethylene. These NGLs are being extracted from largely untapped shale deposits, including the Marcellus and Utica deposits in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania (C&EN, June 13, page 9).
“As these investments are made, you’re going to see some fairly good gains over the next decade in terms of the industry’s employment, which will include chemists and chemical engineers,” Swift says.
He expects that demand for chemists and chemical engineers associated with these shale gas projects will be highest on the Gulf Coast, primarily in Texas and Louisiana. Demand might also develop in Pennsylvania, New York, or West Virginia if petrochemical producers build plants near the shale deposits.
In all, ACC estimates that a projected 25% increase in ethane supply will create more than 17,000 jobs in the chemical industry.
One company that has announced major investments in petrochemical capacity, both in the U.S. and overseas, is Dow Chemical (C&EN, April 25, page 20). These projects are already driving up demand for new employees.
Dow has “seen a significant increase in hiring this year compared to 2010,” says Jennifer Frame, director of workforce planning. “It exceeded our forecast.” The increase has been concentrated in the chemical engineering sector rather than in chemistry, however.
Chemical engineers are needed for investments on the U.S. Gulf Coast that are ramping up over the next several years to support increased production of ethylene and propylene. The company is also hiring entry-level chemical engineers to fill openings resulting from increased retirements and to succeed some experienced Dow engineers who have taken on design work for Sadara Chemical. This joint venture with Saudi Aramco will build a $20 billion petrochemical complex in Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia (C&EN, Aug. 1, page 7). Chemical engineers are also needed for the Dow Solar business, which produces solar panels that double as roofing shingles.
How hard is it to fill chemical engineering slots? “We do tend to fill them eventually, but it takes a bit longer than we’d like,” Frame says. “There’s just not enough specialty skills to go around.” The company is recruiting heavily on campuses and is beefing up its internship program. “We have very good success at converting interns to full-time hires,” Frame says.
Dow is also hiring more chemical engineers with five, 10, or even 15 years of experience by using social media including LinkedIn, and by asking current employees to reach out to their contacts. “Ten years ago, I would have said we could fill most of our needs with campus recruiting, which is not the case today,” Frame says.
Several factors have limited the pool of chemical engineers. Beginning back in the late 1980s, there was a lot of interest in Wall Street careers, and fewer students were interested in majoring in chemistry or chemical engineering, ACC’s Swift says. In addition, natural gas prices were high a decade ago, and the chemical industry “went through a difficult period and probably wasn’t hiring.”
Furthermore, the educational system doesn’t make chemistry particularly appealing for students, Frame says.
“But I think that’s part of getting the message out that Dow is in so many places, from water treatment to paints and plastics to batteries—a lot of good variety,” she adds. “So it’s really focusing a lot of effort, all the way back to elementary, middle, and high school, and some significant investments in the colleges and universities now, to help us build up that pipeline.”
Dow recently announced that it will spend $250 million over the next 10 years to support chemical research at major universities and to help attract young people in the U.S. to careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (C&EN, Oct. 10, page 9).
Adding to the pressure on Dow is the impending retirement of significant numbers of employees. In fact, many chemical companies are concerned about the aging workforce. “If you look at a typical group of chemists or chemical engineers, a lot of people are 50 or older,” says ACC’s Swift. “That implies that a lot of people are going to be retiring in the next 10, 15, or 20 years. So there could be a lot of turnover there for new graduates going into the industry, and opportunities opening up.”
Dow and other companies are undertaking proactive staffing efforts to compensate for the coming wave of retirements. “We’re looking not only one year ahead, but maybe five years ahead, to understand how we need to start building our talent pipeline now,” Frame says.
“As we lose some folks that are at retirement eligibility age, we’re losing a lot of experience,” Frame adds. “And so while we do still have a very strong and robust entry-level campus hiring activity, we are seeing more of a need to also bring in a good mix of those with experience.”
W.R. Grace is in the midst of designing a knowledge-transfer program to ensure it doesn’t lose expertise as its own chemists and chemical engineers retire, says Troy Vincent, vice president of global talent acquisition. The program will pair experienced staffers who are nearing retirement with less-experienced successors. These partnerships will last six months to a year and will help the younger staffers come up to speed on the company’s processes and methods.
Retirements at Grace slowed because of the recession. But the company is now reactivating its succession planning and identifying areas where it will hire in 2012. “Some of those areas are focused on our R&D organization, whether that’s entry-level chemists on up to Ph.D.-level chemists,” Vincent says.
In fact, hiring of chemists and chemical engineers at Grace is up 40% in the U.S. compared with last year, Vincent says. “Some of that is based on filling some of the jobs that we wanted to [fill] before the economic downturn, and some of it is staying in front of the marketplace, anticipating future growth opportunities.”
Grace Davison, the company’s specialty chemical division, is currently seeing growth in some of its markets and anticipates growth in others, so it’s been hiring chemists and chemical engineers to fill openings ranging from entry-level positions up through business manager and leadership positions.
The company’s other division, Grace Construction Products, has been affected by the slump in global construction, so “there hasn’t been as much hiring in that part of the business,” Vincent says. Nevertheless, the division continues to pick up some new employees so that when the market does revive, “we’re in a position to move forward with it instead of missing the wave.”
Grace is a “Lean Six Sigma” company, Vincent notes, referring to the application of Six Sigma productivity tools to all aspects of the business, not just to manufacturing. The company has been training its current staff in the program’s tenets and is also hiring some so-called Black Belts, who are experts in Six Sigma.
Grace is focusing its hiring related to productivity improvement more in North America, while its broader hiring of people in R&D, sales, technical service, and manufacturing is more common in other geographic sectors. “It’s a matter of where the markets are growing and moving forward,” Vincent says. “I don’t think it’s any secret that North America has been fairly flat, and the emerging regions are where you’re seeing some of the growth.
“The marketplace is as competitive as it ever has been,” Vincent continues. “There’s a misconception with some people that, because unemployment is very high, it should be very easy to hire people. But the fact of the matter is that the specific skill sets and backgrounds that we’re looking for are no different than they have been in the past.” In fact, in some ways staffing is now more challenging because “people may be less willing to make a switch is this tougher economy,” he notes. “They have to be very certain that they want to make a change, and in some cases, they decide not to.”
Like Grace, BASF is in hiring mode. The company is projecting a 10% hike in its demand for chemists and chemical engineers in North America compared with last year, says Tina Kao, vice president for human resources, talent development, and strategy. The increased demand is being driven in part by the company’s capital investments, as well as its commitment to transforming its chemical manufacturing facilities—including its two largest, in Texas and Louisiana—into world-class sites.
In North America, BASF hires chemists with a range of experience and education. But the company’s main hiring focus in the region is on engineers. BASF hires entry-level chemical engineers and rotates them through a couple of different positions before placing them permanently in a particular job. The company also hires mid- and senior-level engineers.
“Given the complexity of the plants, and our commitment to safety and process excellence, our technical talent is really important for us,” Kao says. “These are the folks that lead and support and drive the productivity and excellence at our operations.” But they’re “not always easy to attract.” For example, the company has continuing demand for petroleum engineers and must compete against oil refineries to attract them.
“So we have a strategy in place to make sure that BASF continues to be a great place to work, particularly for technical talent,” Kao says. That strategy includes offering development opportunities to engineers at both the technical and managerial levels. BASF is also testing the feasibility of part-time positions for engineers. This experimental program could help retain or attract staffers such as female engineers who would otherwise leave the workforce to start a family, Kao says.
The employment situation is quite different at Merck & Co. Its 2009 acquisition of Schering-Plough is having a devastating impact in terms of job cuts, which are expected to affect almost 16,000 employees (C&EN, July 12, 2010, page 5).
Nevertheless, the company still “needs to bring in new talent and to keep up to date with modern technologies,” says Christopher H. Hill, Merck’s head of global chemistry. Most of Merck’s chemistry positions are in North America, primarily on the East Coast.
Recruitment over the past year or so has been “focused on strategic hiring into our key areas of innovation and complex problem solving,” he says. “That will continue to be the case in the future.” By contrast, he adds, work involving production of standard, simple molecules will increasingly be outsourced.
One of the major changes resulting from the merger with Schering-Plough was the formation of a global chemistry organization, Hill says. The new structure presents accelerated development opportunities for chemists who want to enhance their skills and gain experience with different parts of the organization.
Some Merck chemists who have a synthetic chemistry background may decide to stick with that focus, particularly if they’re in the process chemistry part of the company. But other synthetic chemists may transition into the medicinal chemistry sector, Hill says. “To do that, they have to develop a really thorough understanding not only of chemistry and the way molecules interact with their mechanistic targets of interest, but also of the biology, DMPK [drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics], and other aspects of the discovery process.”
In addition, “there’s a drive within our industry to be more predictive in what we do,” so Merck will continue to recruit computational chemists, modelers, structural chemists, and chemoinformatics experts. There’s also room for people with training in more specialized areas such as NMR and crystallography.
Merck has developed strong catalysis and biocatalysis groups, which are involved in drug discovery as well as finding new ways of making compounds that are in development or are already products. One example is the biocatalytic process developed to synthesize the diabetes drug sitagliptin.
“We’ve moved into new areas of chemistry as well, such as RNAi chemistry, which we will continue to invest in,” Hill says. “So those are the types of areas where we’re looking to innovate and where we have complex problems to solve, and those are the types of chemists that we have looked to recruit” and will continue to search out.
“Within our industry as a whole, given the challenges we’ve got and the problems we’ve got to solve, we’re always looking to bring in people with significant knowledge, expertise, and capabilities,” Hill says. “There has been a trend toward bringing in people with higher-level degrees. So over the last few years, we’ve tended to bring in people more with master’s degrees rather than bachelor’s, and to bring in Ph.D.s with postdoctoral experience as well.”
Unlike the situation with Merck, Berkshire Hathaway’s recent acquisition of the specialty chemical firm Lubrizol is not expected to lead to layoffs because it doesn’t involve the integration of two similar companies (C&EN, March 21, page 11). In fact, Lubrizol, which enjoyed record earnings in 2010, is looking to hire more chemists and chemical engineers in the U.S. than it did last year, says Tom Tomasula Jr., director of global recruiting and domestic relocation.
During this year’s recruiting season, which runs from this fall through spring 2012, Lubrizol will hire up to five more chemical engineer “co-ops” than the 15 it hired last year. Co-ops are typically undergraduates who work periodic stints of about four months each at Lubrizol throughout their schooling. Lubrizol likes to hire them on a permanent basis once they’re done with their schooling. The co-op program is “our biggest source for hiring our entry-level people,” says Tomasula. Choosing the right co-ops is “fundamental to our future success, because we could be affecting the organization for the next 25 to 35-plus years at a senior leadership level.” To drive the point home, he notes that several of the company’s executives—including its chief executive officer—began their careers at the company as co-ops.
Co-ops are based in northeastern Ohio—home to corporate headquarters, business segment headquarters for Lubrizol’s additives and advanced materials divisions, two production facilities, and a pilot plant—as well as in Deer Park, Texas, the site of the company’s largest operations facility.
Lubrizol has a similar program for young chemists, who are taken on as interns, Tomasula says. For this recruiting season, Lubrizol is looking for eight to 10 chemistry interns, compared with six last year. They’ll primarily be located in northeastern Ohio; most will be undergraduates.
In terms of full-time staff, Lubrizol plans to hire at least as many chemical engineers as it hired last year in the U.S.
The company is also looking for as many as eight full-time chemists to fill jobs in the U.S.; most will be Ph.D.s, though a few might have bachelor’s or master’s degrees. That total is up a bit from last year, when the company hired six Ph.D. chemists. Many of the firm’s Ph.D. chemists start in its research and development department working primarily with internal customers and then move to the business side, where they interact more with external customers.
Lubrizol is experimenting with a new program to help staff a production facility for lubricant additives that is under construction in the Zhuhai Gaolan Port Economic Zone in China. This March, the company hired several Chinese nationals who were graduating from U.S. universities to work at its Deer Park facility for up to a year. After they complete a training program, they will move to the new Zhuhai plant.
Hiring in the U.S. for jobs in China appears to be a growing trend. The chemistry departments at both Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, have hosted recruiters who were looking to fill positions in China.
Some large international companies are specifically looking for Chinese nationals who would like to return to China to staff the firms’ new facilities, says UW Madison’s Chemistry Graduate Program Coordinator Stephenie Nagle, who handles chemistry career services.
Such companies are finding a receptive audience at universities. “Some of our international students have been interested in working abroad,” says Lynn M. Guthrie, an assistant in MIT’s chemistry education office who handles recruiting. “In particular, we have a number of postdoctoral fellows from China who are interested in working in China.”
At both MIT and UW Madison, however, most of the visiting recruiters are from U.S. companies looking to hire chemists to work in the U.S.
This year has been much busier than the past few years in terms of industry demand for graduates with Ph.D.s in chemistry, Guthrie says. “We’ve had a lot of recruiters interested in coming to campus and more people looking to hire than in the past couple years,” she adds.
UW Madison is also seeing an uptick in the number of employers coming to campus to interview chemistry grad students, compared with the prior two years, Nagle says. Still, she describes the recruiters as being “cautious” about the number of hires they expect to make.
Is the worst over in terms of unemployment for chemists? “It’s always difficult to predict that,” says Merck’s Hill. “These things tend to be cyclical. I think there are wonderful opportunities for chemists within our industry. But it is a fact of life that the industry itself appears to be contracting.”
From Grace’s perspective, “it’s like the balloon has shrunk” in terms of demand for new employees since before the recession, Vincent says. “Everything is just scaled down a little bit, just like our markets.”
“We’re constantly looking for technical and engineering talent,” BASF’s Kao says. “Recruiters are very busy; the businesses are very busy. But like most companies right now, we’re also very vigilant about the global and North American macroeconomic trends,” she says. “How they impact us is obviously to be determined.” ◾
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