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Employment Outlook: Clouded

by Rudy M. Baum
November 7, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 45

This week’s issue is C&EN’s annual Employment Outlook feature, which consists of a story on demand for chemists by Assistant Managing Editor for ACS News & Special Features Sophie Rovner, a story on how to make the best use of headhunters by Senior Editor Susan Ainsworth, and a story on efforts by ACS to support innovation in chemistry and to assist chemical entrepreneurs by News Editor William Schulz.

The job market for chemists has not been bright over the past few years. Even before the onset of the Great Recession, mergers and acquisitions in the pharmaceutical industry and the trend toward outsourcing fine and custom chemical synthesis to companies in China, India, and elsewhere had cut into chemical employment in the U.S. The recession exacerbated the employment woes of too many chemists.

Although the Great Recession ended more than two years ago, as Rovner points out, unemployment remains high. Chemists and chemical engineers have fared better than members of the general population, but their situation has not been rosy. U.S. unemployment peaked at 10.1% in 2009; among ACS members, unemployment reached 3.9% in 2009 compared with 2.3–2.4% in 2007–08. Among new chemistry graduates, the situation was much worse, with unemployment climbing from 7.2% in 2007 to 11.4% in 2009.

The grim employment outlook may—emphasize may—be easing somewhat. Rovner reports that unemployment among new graduates in 2010 was 10.7% and, among ACS chemists and chemical engineers, it was 3.8%. The bloodletting in pharma may be declining. Pharma job cuts announced during the first three quarters of 2011 totaled about 19,000—still an awful number but far better than the more than 43,000 announced during the same period in 2010 and the more than 58,000 announced during the first three quarters of 2009.

And the economic picture in the U.S. also appears to be somewhat less dire than some had feared. Just last month, the Commerce Department announced that the U.S. GDP had grown 2.5% in the third quarter, up from 1.3% in the second quarter. It’s not growth that’s sufficient to bring unemployment numbers down anytime soon, but it is growth that suggests that the U.S. economy is not headed into a double-dip recession.

That said, there is nothing Pollyannaish about C&EN’s coverage of the employment situation for chemists. It is tough out there, and individuals have to actively manage their careers and job searches. One hard truth in Rovner’s coverage is that chemical engineers seem to be in better shape than chemists in seeking employment.

Chemists looking for jobs need to have the skill sets hiring companies need. Troy Vincent, vice president of global talent acquisition at W.R. Grace, told Rovner: “The marketplace is as competitive as it ever has been. 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.” Chemists also have to be willing to transform themselves, for example, from synthetic chemists to medicinal chemists as the job market shifts.

And chemists need to be continuously managing their careers in this challenging employment environment. One way to do that is to develop a relationship with one or more executive recruiters or headhunters. Ainsworth writes: “Focused on a specific field or area of expertise, headhunters have the potential to provide a wealth of benefits and services, including job search advice and access to positions a candidate might not otherwise find or consider.”

Yet another employment avenue for chemists to consider is becoming an entrepreneur and starting a company. As Schulz reports, an ACS blue-ribbon task force’s recommendations are being put into place by the society to assist chemical entrepreneurs in the arduous but potentially rewarding journey of bringing a new product or service to market.

The employment outlook is, indeed, clouded, but opportunities do exist for those willing to adapt, to learn, and to take a risk.

Thanks for reading.


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