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Tepid Recovery Curtails Hiring

Weaker than expected economic growth bodes poorly for unemployed chemists

by Sophie L. Rovner
November 5, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 45


Credit: Cambrex/Vellum Media
A Cambrex chemical engineer inspects a centrifuge during a cleaning validation.
A worker in a clean suit inspects large cylindrical centrifuge.
Credit: Cambrex/Vellum Media
A Cambrex chemical engineer inspects a centrifuge during a cleaning validation.

Not that long ago, chemists regarded their education as a guarantee of lifelong employment. That’s no longer the case. And given the wobbly outlook for the U.S. and world economies, their sense of security is unlikely to return anytime soon.

The U.S. economy, as measured by the output of goods and services known as gross domestic product, grew at an annual rate of 2.0% in the third quarter of 2012, according to preliminary figures released by the Department of Commerce in late October. This increase builds on a growth rate of 1.3% in the second quarter and 2.0% in the first quarter.

These modest improvements are welcome, but the assessments that emerged from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group annual meetings in Tokyo last month are sobering. “The world economic recovery continues, but it has weakened further,” said Olivier J. Blanchard, IMF’s chief economist. “In advanced economies, growth is now too low to make a substantial dent in unemployment, and in major emerging markets, growth, which had been strong earlier, has also decreased.”

Compared with projections it made in April, IMF has now lowered its 2013 economic growth forecast from 1.8% to 1.5% for advanced countries. That rate compares with growth of 3.0% in 2010, 1.6% in 2011, and 1.3% projected for 2012. In the U.S. in particular, growth slipped from 2.4% in 2010 to 1.8% in 2011 and is expected to reach 2.2% this year and 2.1% next year.

For emerging and developing economies, IMF reduced its growth forecast for 2013 from 5.8% down to 5.6%. That compares with growth of 7.4% in 2010, 6.2% in 2011, and 5.3% projected for 2012. Blanchard attributed much of the slowing of growth in emerging and developing nations in Asia to a reduction in exports.

He blamed a mix of factors for the weak outlook in developed nations. Those factors include cuts in government spending and shaky banks in Europe that are keeping a tight rein on lending. Other forces Blanchard described include “a general feeling of uncertainty about the future, worries about the ability of European policymakers to control the euro crisis,” and concerns about “the failure of U.S. policymakers to agree so far on a fiscal plan. There are worries about the ability of the Japanese policymakers to reduce sufficiently their budget deficit,” he added. “And all appear to play an important role in weighing on demand and again on growth.”

These factors have already created hellish conditions for workers. As IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde expressed it at the IMF and World Bank meetings, “The unemployment rates that we see in advanced economies in particular, and among young people, are terrifying and unacceptable.” Unemployment in Spain and Greece, for example, has worsened since last year and is expected to top 20% this year. IMF anticipates that rates will be 10.1% in France, 8.1% in the U.K., and an enviable 5.2% in Germany this year. And it expects all of these numbers to worsen next year, except for the U.K.’s, which IMF predicts will stay the same.

U.S. unemployment peaked at 10.0% on a seasonally adjusted basis back in October 2009. This year, the rate meandered between 8.1 and 8.3% in the first nine months before dipping to 7.8% in September, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For the full year, U.S. unemployment is expected to stand at 8.2% in 2012 and edge down to 8.1% in 2013, IMF predicts. The U.S. Federal Reserve is more optimistic, pegging unemployment in 2013 at somewhere between 7.6 and 7.9%.

Some 12.1 million U.S. workers were unemployed as of September 2012, including 4.8 million long-term unemployed, meaning they’d been jobless for 27 weeks or more. A year earlier, 13.9 million people were unemployed, including 6.2 million long-term unemployed.

California, Texas, Illinois, North Carolina, and the Northeast employ the most chemical engineers NOTE: Employment of chemical engineers by state, May 2011. SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
A map of the U.S. shows employment of chemical engineers by state.
California, Texas, Illinois, North Carolina, and the Northeast employ the most chemical engineers NOTE: Employment of chemical engineers by state, May 2011. SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Employment levels have also improved modestly, suggesting that the decline in unemployment is not a result of discouraged job hunters abandoning their search. The civilian labor force in the U.S. totaled 143 million on a seasonally adjusted basis in September 2012, up from 140 million a year earlier.

Zeroing in on the U.S. chemical manufacturing sector, employment totaled 799,600 on a seasonally adjusted basis in September 2012, up 0.2% from the prior month and up 0.7% from September 2011, according to preliminary figures from BLS. That’s good news, but it’s little comfort to the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their jobs in prior months. At the start of the Great Recession in December 2007, employment in the sector was 857,600. Five years earlier, it was 921,500. And 10 years before that—in December 1992—chemical manufacturing employees numbered 1.03 million.

The loss in jobs has affected plenty of chemists and chemical engineers. Annual surveys conducted by the American Chemical Society show that unemployment among society members in the U.S. workforce was 4.2% as of March 1, down from 4.6% a year earlier but up from 2.3% in 2008. These numbers are significantly lower than the average for U.S. workers as a whole, but they are only slightly lower than the U.S. average for all degree holders, says Elizabeth C. McGaha, assistant director for the society’s Research & Brand Strategy department, which carries out member research, including the annual salary and employment surveys.

New grads face much worse unemployment rates than experienced chemists and chemical engineers. NOTE: Corrected number for 2004 for ACS members. Numbers include unemployed and seeking employment. Data for 2012 on new graduates are not yet available. SOURCES: ACS Starting Salary Survey, ACS Comprehensive Salary and Employment Status Survey
A line graph shows that new grads face worse unemployment thant experienced workers in chemistry and chemical engineering.
New grads face much worse unemployment rates than experienced chemists and chemical engineers. NOTE: Corrected number for 2004 for ACS members. Numbers include unemployed and seeking employment. Data for 2012 on new graduates are not yet available. SOURCES: ACS Starting Salary Survey, ACS Comprehensive Salary and Employment Status Survey

An advanced degree offers ACS members better protection from job loss than an undergraduate degree: The March 2012 unemployment rate for members with a Ph.D. was 3.4%, compared with 5.9% for those with a bachelor’s.

In addition, March unemployment for ACS members who were previously employed in industry was 5.4%—considerably higher than the 2.2% rate for those who had lost a job in academia, McGaha says.

The statistics from a single date don’t tell the whole story, of course. “The percent of ACS domestic members in the workforce who were unemployed at any point in 2011 was 8.2%,” down from 8.4% in 2010, McGaha says. The median length of unemployment for members who were out of work at any point in 2011 was four months. Again, the members at greatest risk were those employed in industry.

Experienced chemists are certainly struggling, but new graduates are bearing the brunt of the downturn. As of October 2011—the most recent data available from ACS—unemployment among recent graduates in chemistry and related fields was 13.3%, up from 10.6% the previous year.

“Once again, the employment outlook was better for those holding a Ph.D. versus a B.A. or B.S.,” McGaha says. Recent Ph.D. graduates reported an unemployment rate of 8.8%, compared with 13.6% for recent B.A. and B.S. grads. “Still, a number of reports, including one from Georgetown University’s Center on Education & the Workforce, point out that unemployment rates for recent graduates in the fields of life and physical sciences, among others, are significantly lower than many other degree programs,” McGaha says. But she acknowledges that this news “may offer little comfort to a recent chemistry graduate who is currently unemployed.”

The great disparity between new grads and experienced chemists has surprised David Harwell, assistant director for career management at ACS. He had expected that “older workers who make more money would be pushed out” as a result of the recession and that “the younger new graduates, who are cheaper and have new ideas, would be pulled in preferentially.” But that hasn’t happened. Not only are recent graduates less likely than experienced chemists to have a job, but they also take longer than displaced workers to find a job, Harwell says.

One factor that works against new graduates is their lack of a professional network. Harwell suggests that they seek connections beyond their current research groups by getting to know former graduates and finding out where those chemists now work.

There are other creative ways to build networks. For instance, chemists and engineers who are interested in BASF can ask to join its LinkedIn group focused on U.S. jobs. There, they can correspond with the company’s recruiters and learn about job opportunities. Potential applicants can also join the “talent community” on BASF’s careers website so they’ll receive notice of opportunities that match their career interests.

Chemical industry employment slump paused in 2011.SOURCE: European Chemical Industry Council
A bar graph shows that the chemical industry employment slump paused in 2011.
Chemical industry employment slump paused in 2011.SOURCE: European Chemical Industry Council

Networking is fairly straightforward for new grads or for chemists who are employed, but it can be embarrassing for chemists who have lost their jobs. Chemists with work experience are likely to have better networks than students do, “but they might not utilize them because they don’t want to let people know that they need a job,” Harwell says. But family, friends, and other connections can offer job leads only if they know that the chemist needs work.

Recent graduates as well as experienced chemists and chemical engineers will find that certain fields are more welcoming than others. One sector that’s been hit particularly hard—not just by the recession but also by outsourcing and the expiration of patent protection on several blockbuster drugs—is the pharmaceutical industry.

In the New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia area, “pharma just picked up and left,” Harwell says.

The bleeding may be slowing, however. Back in 2010, job cuts in pharma announced by U.S. employers during the first three quarters of the year totaled 43,334, according to the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. The analogous number was 19,076 in 2011 and just 10,109 in 2012.

In the chemical industry, job cuts announced by U.S. employers in the first three quarters of 2010 stood at a mere 1,716, rising to 2,447 and 2,545 during the same period in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

Credit: BASF
Angela Hodgkinson, environmental coordinator, and Rakesh Singh, production manager, work at BASF’s Port Arthur, Texas, facility.
A man in a tan shirt, hard hat, and safety goggles points to something affixed to an outdoor stairway at a chemical plant while a woman in a blue shirt, hard hat, and safety goggles looks on. A large lamp looms in the background in front of a partly cloudy sky.
Credit: BASF
Angela Hodgkinson, environmental coordinator, and Rakesh Singh, production manager, work at BASF’s Port Arthur, Texas, facility.

The biggest job cuts that have been reported in C&EN’s pages this year include 7,300 by AstraZeneca in locations such as Sweden and Canada; 2,800 by Takeda Pharmaceutical in Europe and the U.S.; 2,400 worldwide by Dow Chemical; 2,000 by PPG Industries, primarily in Europe; 1,500 by DuPont worldwide; 1,100 by Merck KGaA in Germany; 1,000 by DSM, with about half in Europe; and 1,000 by Roche in the U.S. These cuts and others in the industry affect plenty of staff members who aren’t scientists, but they also impact thousands of R&D jobs, including those of chemists and chemical engineers.

At the same time, some companies are announcing anticipated expansions that will provide jobs for at least some chemists and chemical engineers. This year, C&EN reported that Dow and Aksa Akrilik Kimya Sanayii are forming a carbon fiber joint venture that could add 1,000 overall jobs in Turkey (Jan. 2, page 12). GlaxoSmithKline hopes to create about 1,000 new pharma jobs in the U.K. (April 2, page 12). Novo Nordisk plans to expand its U.S. pharma workforce by about 600 (May 7, page 17). Generic drug maker Mylan intends to add more than 500 jobs in Ireland (April 23, page 19). Roche will open a translational clinical research center with approximately 240 employees in the U.S. (Oct. 1, page 27). And Allergan’s pharmaceutical subsidiary in Ireland expects to create 200 new jobs (Jan. 16, page 19).

In addition, several companies, including Dow and Chevron Phillips Chemical, are building, expanding, or restarting petrochemical facilities in the U.S., driven to a large degree by low feedstock prices (C&EN, June 11, page 6). Those prices have been depressed in part by growth in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a technique used to extract natural gas liquids trapped in shale formations.

These trends are certainly boosting employment for chemists and chemical engineers in the U.S. But the huge systemic disruptions that have occurred in the industry make it tough to predict job trends in the years ahead, Harwell says. It could take at least a decade for employment to return to prerecession levels, he says, and that’s assuming that the industry rebuilds to its former capacity in the U.S.

But some chemical companies are opting instead to move at least part of their manufacturing to emerging markets. “In most cases, that’s also where there’s a lower-wage workforce, and we’re seeing R&D follow,” Harwell says. “These markets are looking for new graduates as well as experienced people,” so they offer an alternative for chemists and chemical engineers who are willing to relocate.


The specialty chemical company Ashland is “focused on growth in emerging regions including China, Brazil, and India, and it’s important for us to build our key skill sets in these areas,” says Director of Human Resources David Nocek, who is based in Wilmington, Del. “We can’t be a global company and have all of our chemical engineers in North America. We continue to build talent in the local regions.” At present, the firm has about 15,000 employees worldwide, including several hundred chemists and chemical engineers.

A year ago, Ashland had just completed a large acquisition of International Specialty Products, or ISP, and was “focused more internally on the integration and on internal placement decisions,” Nocek says. “Now we are focused on growing the business. We have a more robust hiring pipeline for chemists and chemical engineers. In 2012, we filled more than 200 technology positions,” many with people who have chemistry and chemical engineering backgrounds, he says. “We expect this hiring trend to continue into 2013.”

DuPont was occupied with its own integration effort last year. “We hired a lot of people into DuPont through the acquisition of Danisco/Genencor and will continue to hire in the area of biotechnology,” says Michael Patrick, director of global talent acquisition for DuPont. “We will always require talent who can apply chemistry and chemical engineering principles to solving challenging problems” in agriculture and industrial biosciences, he adds. Chemists and chemical engineers who can apply their knowledge in “fields and applications that address the megatrends of food, energy, and protection” are also always in demand at DuPont, he says.

BASF plans to “significantly ramp up” hiring of chemists in North America in the coming year as a result of its plan to globalize its R&D, says Bernadette Palumbo, director of staffing and university relations, who is based in Florham Park, N.J. “In the past, research and some development has been performed primarily in Germany. BASF is now going to move some of those roles into other regions of the globe, including North America.” In fact, BASF’s plant sciences division moved its global headquarters from Germany to Raleigh, N.C., earlier this year and is in the process of moving much of its R&D function there as well, Palumbo notes.

BASF also needs more chemical and reliability engineers, particularly in the Gulf Coast region of North America, as the company expands support of its businesses there, Palumbo says.

Increased competition in both the oil and gas sector and in plant biotech is making it harder to find qualified candidates in certain niche areas such as reliability engineering and green biotech, both for BASF and for other companies, Palumbo notes.

BASF is responding in part by expanding its university recruitment efforts. It’s also working to attract a more diverse pool of talent. For instance, this year the company began a partnership with North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black university. BASF has already identified a number of engineering students from the university for its internships and its 18-month training program. The program includes opportunities to work at various BASF sites, learn about each of the firm’s business units, and interact with senior staff. “We view the participants in our professional development programs as the front end of our talent pipeline,” Palumbo says.

Cambrex, a contract manufacturing organization focused on active pharmaceutical ingredients, is also boosting hiring. Last year, the number of scientists hired by its Charles City, Iowa, facility—its only U.S. site—was in the single digits, “whereas this year we’re up at least 10 to 15 people,” says Joe Nettleton, vice president of operations and site director. The site has also been hiring engineers, including process, production, and validation engineers. The facility is home to some 210 employees, including about one-third with a chemistry or chemical engineering degree. Nettleton expects that Cambrex Charles City will take on 20 to 25 chemists and chemical engineers in the coming year. The staff is expanding to meet increasing demand for the company’s products.

Cambrex casts a global net for staff. Recent hires have come from India as well as the U.S. “We’re looking for folks that have some pharmaceutical—and preferably batch—processing experience,” Nettleton says. The firm doesn’t tend to hire graduates right out of college.

Over the past year, FMC, a specialty chemical company with leading positions in agricultural, industrial, and consumer markets, created new jobs for more than two dozen chemists and chemical engineers in the U.S. It plans to top that expansion in the coming year as it strives to grow revenues to $5 billion by 2015, according to Talent Acquisition Manager Kevin Cornely, who is based in Philadelphia. The company has about 5,500 employees, with about half based in the U.S.

California, Texas, and the Northeast employ the most chemists. NOTE: Employment of chemists by state, May 2011. SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
A map shows the employment of chemists in the U.S. by state.
California, Texas, and the Northeast employ the most chemists. NOTE: Employment of chemists by state, May 2011. SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

The new hires will fill jobs in the U.S. as well as overseas, particularly in rapidly developing economies in which FMC already has a significant presence, such as Brazil, Argentina, China, and India. “We want to go where the growth is,” Cornely explains.

Chemical engineers are hired primarily for process engineering and other types of chemical process development work in FMC’s plants. Chemists are hired mainly to carry out R&D at its “innovation centers,” which support the firm’s agricultural, food, and pharmaceutical ingredient businesses.

Lubrizol, a specialty chemical company with 7,000 employees worldwide, added five new positions for chemists this year, primarily in the U.S. It expects to increase hiring of chemists in 2013, says Tricia Sulzbach, human resources director.

The company is responding to anticipated growth in Asia. It’s also trying to address a threat hanging over the entire chemical industry in the U.S.: the coming wave of retirements as the baby boomer generation grows older.

For chemistry hires, the company opts for those with a Ph.D. in organic synthesis rather than, say, nanochemistry or composites. “We prefer a candidate with solid chemistry skills,” Sulzbach says. “We will train and specialize them.”

Many recent applicants for positions at Lubrizol would have traditionally headed into the pharma sector but are now avoiding that business because of its lack of opportunities, she adds. A company like Lubrizol can offer these chemists development opportunities as well as a range of work in sectors as varied as personal and home care, coatings, engineered polymers, and engine additives.

For chemical engineers, Lubrizol typically takes on those with a bachelor’s or at most a master’s degree. The company plans to maintain its usual level of hiring of 15 to 20 chemical engineers from its co-op program, Sulzbach says. Co-ops are typically undergraduates who work periodic stints of about four months each at Lubrizol throughout their schooling.

The new hires will work in the U.S. or Asia. Some will head to a production facility for lubricant additives that the company is building in Zhuhai, China. The facility will open in 2013.

Candidates who have some experience with project management as well as an awareness of how their research could translate into a practical product for a customer are particularly welcome at Lubrizol.

The real value of a degree isn’t realized unless a graduate can apply his or her learning to a practical situation, Cambrex’ Nettleton says. “When you’re in the manufacturing environment, the end goal is to get a high-quality product safely into a drum or a box or a pill and get it out to the customer base,” he explains. “And you get that either through the experience of a job or an internship.” Cambrex has seen great success with its internship program, which is tied with the state universities in Iowa.

Internships in industry increase a new graduate’s chance of landing a permanent job. “Exposure to business practices, environmental practices, safety culture—that gives you an edge,” Harwell says. “If you understand that safety is incredibly important in industry, that gives you a leg up.”

“Internships are critical,” Ashland’s Nocek confirms. “Many companies utilize their internship programs as extended interviews and as a way to assess the best talent. They use these programs to decide whom they will ultimately hire. Even if you don’t get hired by the company you intern for, the experience is necessary to land a role with another company.”

During internships, and in the initial years of a full-time job, “it’s important to listen and learn from those individuals that have experience in the work environment,” FMC’s Cornely says. But the learning can go both ways. “One of the best things about people coming into the workforce is that they’re not necessarily influenced by how things ‘should’ work,” he says. “They can look at things with a totally objective eye. They can ask questions without having experience sway them one way or the other.” And that can lead to creative solutions for problems that arise in industry.


FMC launched an internship program this year primarily focused on chemistry and chemical engineering undergraduates. The company hired more than 20 interns into the program.

Employers note that international experience, such as an internship abroad, makes job candidates particularly appealing, ACS’s Harwell says. Exposure to a different culture makes a chemist “more likely to be able to contribute to an international team.” Something as simple as understanding that “yes” means different things in different cultures can be invaluable. “In other cultures, ‘yes’ may just mean that they understand what you said,” Harwell explains. “It may not be a commitment to do something.”

This expanded perspective is important because “most research these days is done by global companies,” he adds. That means that a synthesis or analysis might proceed 24 hours per day, with the work being passed back and forth between teams in different countries as the project progresses.

Credit: FMC
Holly Bertrand studies pharmaceutical tablet dissolution at FMC’s Global Innovation Center in Ewing, N.J.
A woman in a lab coat and safety goggles operates a reaction apparatus in a well-lit clean-looking lab. Two other people in the background look at something on a bench top.
Credit: FMC
Holly Bertrand studies pharmaceutical tablet dissolution at FMC’s Global Innovation Center in Ewing, N.J.

Students can prepare for the working world in other ways that will make them stand out. For instance, they may want to consider classes that offer grounding in finance, accounting, marketing, and international business, Lubrizol’s Sulzbach says.

Companies are also looking for soft skills in their job candidates, such as people skills, team skills, and leadership skills, says Stephenie Nagle, a graduate program coordinator who handles career services for the chemistry department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. These kinds of skills aren’t emphasized for science majors, she notes, but chemistry students can pick them up through classes in UW Madison’s business school. Taking these extra classes may lengthen the time needed to earn a chemistry degree, she concedes.

Nagle urges students to plan well in advance for their entry into the job market. Some students in her department will graduate in December 2013. For them, “it’s not too early, especially for Ph.D.s, to start going to career fairs and information sessions and signing up for interviews,” she says. “Undergraduates need to start in the fall or spring of the year before they’re going to graduate.”

An early start is critical because success depends to a large extent on networking, she says. Students can build connections with other chemists and potential employers by getting involved in professional organizations such as ACS and attending conferences, Nagle says.

“It’s important to start your networking and your exposure to employers early,” she adds. “You have a much stronger relationship and application if you go to their information sessions on campus, and then when you apply the next year, you’re a known name.”

Nagle suggests that students contact recruiters a couple of years prior to graduation by saying, “I’m interested in your company. What can I do to make myself a viable candidate when the time comes” to graduate? Asking for this advice far in advance gives students time to adjust their training.

At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, too, the students who do well in the recruiting process are those who “are proactive about contacting companies that they’re interested in,” says Lynn M. Guthrie, an assistant in the chemistry department who handles recruiting. Students also find that networking with alumni who work in industry pays off.

She’s seeing plenty of interest in chemistry graduates this year. “We had a number of students who graduated recently and have gone straight into industry,” Guthrie says. She notes that there is always strong demand for synthetic organic chemists, but recruiters are interested in other fields as well. Companies that have dropped by the campus have included patent law and biomedical firms as well as big names including Dow and ExxonMobil.

UW Madison’s chemistry department has seen fewer employers conducting on-campus interviews this year. Nagle believes that’s primarily because of the expense of sending staff around the country for this purpose. Instead, businesses are increasingly participating in on-campus career fairs, where students can gather information about potential employers but don’t go through interviews.

Nagle is seeing more openings in green chemistry, but overall the demand for chemistry graduates is roughly the same as it was last year. Although some firms have fewer openings, she says, others are expanding hiring to refill pipelines depleted by baby boomer retirements and dips in hiring in the 1990s and early 2000s. These companies are motivated in part by wanting to ensure that their older staff members transfer their knowledge and experience to younger staff before retiring.

It’s clearly an unsettled and confusing time in the profession, but the examples above show that there are islands of opportunity for chemists. In fact, Cambrex’ Nettleton is fairly upbeat. “It’s a great time to be in a technical field,” he says. “There are opportunities out there if you are willing and able to go find them.”

Harwell is reluctant to advise chemists to switch to nontraditional jobs or into other fields entirely. “The unemployment rate is generally higher in other fields, so I think that their odds are better staying in chemistry, since that’s where their experience is,” he explains. “I hope that people that want to be chemists will be able to stay in chemistry.”

But as the personal stories on the following pages demonstrate, many chemists and their families continue to pay a terrible price as a result of what the Federal Reserve has termed “the most severe worldwide recession since the Great Depression.”


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