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Drip, Drip, Drip

by A. Maureen Rouhi
October 22, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 43

If you are an optimist, as I am, you will find many signs of improvements in the U.S. economy and job prospects.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 7.8% in September, down from 9.0% in September 2011, and 9.5% in September 2010. And last week, the Department of Commerce reported that new residential construction permits in September are nearly 12% above the rate in August and 45% above the rate in September 2011. A resurgent construction industry is good news for the chemical industry.

In this week’s issue, too, are several stories that provide glimmers of hope that the unemployment crisis may be abating. One is the story on page 24 by Michael McCoy, assistant managing editor for business, about the return of manufacturing to the U.S. The Pennsylvania-based hand tool manufacturer Channellock, McCoy writes, used to import molded polymer grips for its products from Taiwan. When the Taiwanese supplier went bankrupt, McCoy explains, “Channellock decided to stop importing the grips, and its decision is now having positive repercussions for several U.S. companies up and down the plastics supply chain.” Other companies that have returned production to the U.S. are Coleman, a producer of outdoor goods, and Elmer’s Products, a maker of glues.

On page 28, Senior Correspondent Marc S. Reisch reports the founding of an angel investor group aimed at chemistry-related start-ups. Aside from credit cards, family, and friends, angel investors are among the first to fund entrepreneurs at the genesis of a company. The Chemical Angel Network, Reisch reports, grew out of “a talk in March at the American Chemical Society national meeting in San Diego about the society’s programs to help chemist entrepreneurs.” With seven investors signed up, the network is open for business.

Entrepreneurship is one of the most touted ways to create jobs, and ACS has a program to assist chemists who want to start their own businesses. The information and resources made available by the ACS Entrepreneurial Initiative are free to ACS members. If you have an innovative idea but are on the fence about transforming it into a product, be guided by chemists who have shown themselves to be extraordinarily capable of wearing many hats, including that of entrepreneur (C&EN, Aug. 20, page 36).

To further underscore the importance of entrepreneurship as a career track for chemists, ACS has established the Kathryn C. Hach Award for Entrepreneurial Success “to recognize outstanding entrepreneurs who have created a commercially viable business within the chemistry enterprise” (see page 44). The first recipient of this award will be honored at the 2014 spring ACS national meeting in Dallas. Nominations are due on Nov. 1.

I fear, however, that these signs of progress are mere drops in a bucket that needs to fill quickly for many unemployed chemists. Not everyone can be, or wants to be, an entrepreneur. Many chemists just want a job that makes use of their specialized training in the field. And then there are those who are mightily trying to rebuild their professional lives after being laid off from jobs they thought would have for life. As you will read in the employment feature in the Nov. 5 issue, many of them are mid- or late-career professionals, and their struggles are heartbreaking. The economic recovery is just too slow.

Still, I remain optimistic. Earlier this month in Madrid during CPhI, the international trade show for pharmaceutical ingredients, the chief executive officers of two fine chemicals companies told me that the world still needs a lot of chemists. Those who are flexible about where they will live and work and those who have multicultural experiences and multilingual abilities have the greatest opportunities, the pair told me. And last week at a science café, where I participated on a panel about alternative careers for chemists, chemistry students at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., also expressed optimism that by the time they graduate, the job market will be better. Nevertheless, they are seriously preparing for alternative careers in case that is the direction they will need to go.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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