Issue Date: June 30, 2014
No Longer Just A Pair Of Hands
Not long ago chemical technicians typically had an associate’s degree, and many were content to stay in that role for their entire career. But with rapidly advancing technologies and the competitive job market, companies are increasingly seeking candidates with a bachelor’s degree, and these scientists view the position as more of a stepping-stone than a career.
“Technicians used to be just a pair of hands,” says Mary K. Moore, a principal technologist at Eastman Chemical, who has an associate’s degree and entered the field in 1991. “But things have changed, and the bar has been raised; companies are demanding a lot more from technicians now.”
Michele Cook, director of divisional operations for the scientific division of staffing agency Aerotek, observes that the shift toward a bachelor’s degree started around 2009, after the recession. “What we’ve heard from our customers is that they need employees with bachelor’s degrees.” That training gives the companies the “flexibility to move employees to other areas of the organization,” she says. “The other trend we’re seeing is that as technology advances, the role is becoming more complex, which is another reason for the shift toward the bachelor’s degree.”
In addition, older technicians are retiring and taking their experience with them. “Since companies are losing that high-level experience, the only way they see fit in replacing those individuals is with candidates who have a bachelor’s degree and ideally two or more years of experience,” Cook notes.
Kara M. Allen, manager of recruitment and university relations at forensics science company Aegis Sciences Corp., in Nashville, has seen similar trends at her company, which is expanding rapidly. “In earlier years, we focused on recruiting associate-level candidates for our technician roles, as we wanted people to remain in those roles for a long period of time,” she says. “However, with such significant growth, it has benefited us to hire a good number of our technicians at the B.S. level. This has allowed for more promotional opportunities for these team members.”
She says many of their B.S.-level technicians have moved into other positions at the company, serving as forensic special chemists, forensic immunochemists, forensic mass spectrometrists, and certifying scientists, as well as obtaining leadership roles. In those positions, “the experience they gained in the technician role is invaluable,” she says.
However, Janet M. Smith, a research technologist at Dow Corning who has been in the field for 27 years, expresses concern about increasing turnover in chemical technician positions. “Companies will hire bachelor’s degree chemists as technicians, but those chemists are not happy to stay in that position, and they’ll look to jump ladders to the chemist position,” she says. “That could lead to a void in highly experienced technicians in the company.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Eastman’s Moore says. “No matter what kind of a profession you choose, it’s going to evolve,” she says. “Watching people continue to grow no matter which way they choose to take their profession can never be anything but a plus.”
Competition for chemical technician positions is intense. Lauren Gaskell, who has a master’s degree in pharmaceutical sciences, decided to become a chemical technician because she loves working in the lab. After looking for a job for more than a year, she recently found a temporary position as a chemical technician at a company in Boston.
While job searching, she notes that she was competing not only with bachelor’s degree candidates but also with those with a Ph.D. “There are so many Ph.D.s who are willing to take pay below what they would normally get in a much better economy just to get a job,” she says. “It’s very frustrating to know that I’m losing out on jobs that I really want—and I want to make a career out of—to someone who is using it as a stepping-stone. But at the same time, we’re all really desperate for jobs, and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Despite the demand, Allen says Aegis will rarely consider someone with a master’s or Ph.D. for chemical technician positions. “We do our best to follow up with candidates to help direct them to the positions that would be more suited to their education level and experience,” she says.
Bachelor’s-level chemists often see the chemical technician position as a way to get their foot in the door. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Samantha Fisher searched for a job for eight months. Aerotek helped her find placement as a technician at a biotech company in Maryland. After six months, Fisher was hired on as a permanent employee.
She says she never pictured herself working as a chemical technician, but she’s enjoying the experience. “I do feel like I’m at a company where there’s a lot of potential for people to move from being a technician up through the ranks into research, into quality assurance, into validation,” she says. She plans on getting her master’s degree and eventually moving into a research and development position at the company.
John H. Engelman II, a retired chemical technician who moved into R&D positions later in his career, says technicians need to have certain skills, such as the ability to multitask and a strong knowledge of laboratory safety. Also, chemical technicians often work in multidisciplinary research teams, so they need to be excellent communicators and team players.
The American Chemical Society’s Committee on Technician Affairs (CTA), which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, offers many resources and opportunities for chemical technicians to network and grow in their professions. For example, says Moore, who is immediate past chair of CTA, the committee is helping develop courses and webinars that can allow technicians to move into different areas.
This fall, at the ACS national meeting in San Francisco, the committee is cosponsoring a symposium titled “The Role of the Chemical Technician through the Decades.” In addition, a new ChemLuminary Award will be presented in San Francisco that will recognize an event put on by or for technicians from a local section or division.
Greglynn Walton-Gibbs, a research technologist at Pennsylvania State University, says that as a chemical technician, joining a professional organization such as ACS has helped her see the breadth of opportunities available to her. She serves as chair-elect of her local section, she’s a chemistry ambassador and a science coach, a student chapter adviser, and chair of the undergraduate program at the San Francisco national meeting.
“You can contribute, and you can contribute significantly,” she says. “You’re not limited by the position you’re in.”
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