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Neither Pollyanna Nor Voice Of Doom

by Dennis Chamot
April 30, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 18

Dennis Chamot, ACS Director-at-Large
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

The unemployment rate measured by the 2011 American Chemical Society member survey was 4.6%, the highest on record (C&EN, March 26, page 10). Although preliminary results from the 2012 survey point to a somewhat lower rate for this year, the current level is still high by historical standards. Clearly, chemical professionals have been hurt by the economic problems of recent years, but we need to recognize that more than that is going on. I believe that the landscape has changed fundamentally, and understanding that change is necessary for developing appropriate policies and programs.

The general U.S. economy has been showing real signs of improvement (for example, a growing gross domestic product, a high but dropping unemployment rate, several months of net job creation, and increased consumer spending), but income disparity has increased, the home foreclosure crisis has not ended, and unemployed chemists, whether they are new graduates or experienced professionals, are still facing difficulties in finding jobs.

Globalization has been a serious concern for many years, but there are signs that some U.S. corporate leaders are reevaluating the benefits of offshoring. Wages in places such as China are rising more rapidly than in the U.S., and the high cost of fuel has made it much more expensive to ship goods halfway around the world. Theft of intellectual property and the inability to quickly adapt to rapidly changing consumer preferences can cause additional problems for U.S. companies overseas.

Nevertheless, a global manufacturing enterprise with increasing international competition is here to stay. Unfortunately for chemical professionals, it’s not just shop-floor manufacturing and assembly jobs that have moved from the U.S. to Asia and other areas; in recent years the movement has included upper-level, sophisticated work such as chemical research, drug discovery, process design and development, and various levels of management. In addition, domestic capabilities have increased enormously in developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil, as has their output of homegrown scientists and engineers.

What does all of this say about employment opportunities for U.S. chemists? Well, we are probably producing too many chemists for the traditional academic and industrial research labor market, at least for the foreseeable future. To come to any other conclusion would be indulging in empty rhetoric. Note that I did not say we are producing too many graduates with chemistry degrees—more on that later—but we need to be realistic.

Lisa M. Balbes, chair of the Committee on Economic & Professional Affairs, recently described the excellent services that ACS offers to chemical professionals seeking employment or new career opportunities (C&EN, April 2, page 49). The society has been offering these services for some time, and many of our fellow members have found them to be helpful.

But, of course, ACS cannot create jobs, except internally. It is hoped that the new ACS Entrepreneurship Initiative will help members with an entrepreneurial bent grow businesses that will hire chemical professionals, but the number of positions created will not come near what is needed for years. (Aside: At the time of this writing, Facebook announced the acquisition of the two-year-old company Instagram for $1 billion—and the company employs only about 15 people. Not a typical example, but modern companies are often much less labor-intensive than in the past.)

One more complication: Although a lot of chemists are looking for work, some employers complain that finding people to hire is difficult. What they mean, of course, is that it is difficult to find people with exactly the “right” set of narrowly defined skills and experiences. Whatever happened to the idea of retraining?

A Pollyanna would probably say things will get better, without saying how, and a “voice of doom” might say decline is in the wind. Neither extreme is correct. The economy in the U.S., and in much of the rest of the world, will probably continue to grow, albeit relatively slowly for some time to come. This is the inevitable result of the enormous hole that was dug by the housing market collapse, the financial system meltdown, the excessive tax cuts of several years ago, and a couple of wars, to name a few key causes.

Growth in the U.S. will not be fast enough to make up for all of the lost positions in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries over the past few years, in part because many of these losses have not been solely determined by economic decline. Rather, there have been strategic shifts to place work in other countries, and there is no reason to expect those decisions to be reversed.

The keys for many chemical professionals will have to be imagination and flexibility. I am a firm believer in the need for all citizens in modern technological societies to have a strong grounding in science and math, so I would never discourage anyone from pursuing a chemistry degree. What one thinks about doing with that background, though, should include much more than just scientific research. Chemists develop lots of skills, and those skills can be applied in medicine, high school teaching, forensics, science writing, legislative work, policy analysis, quality assurance, regulatory support, and more—much more than just R&D in universities or industry.



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