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Pockets Of Opportunity

In a still-recovering job market, firms are poised to carefully step up hiring of chemists into select business niches

by Susan J. Ainsworth
November 3, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 44


Credit: Tian (Lucy) Lu/University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Students talk with recruiters and complete online applications at a career fair at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
PROACTIVE Students talk with recruiters and complete online applications at a career fair at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Credit: Tian (Lucy) Lu/University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Students talk with recruiters and complete online applications at a career fair at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Although the job market for chemists has shown slow and steady improvement since the dark days following the Great Recession, many chemists—both fresh graduates and seasoned veterans—are still suffering. Some number among the long-term unemployed, having been impacted by the downsizing efforts of big pharma or other companies. For them, further economic recovery, and any opportunity it might spark, can’t arrive soon enough.

In fact, as the year comes to a close, there are some bright spots on the employment horizon, particularly in the U.S. Chemists who can apply or translate their skills to the petrochemicals sector, for example, may find job opportunities that didn’t exist a year or two ago, especially along the Gulf Coast. Meanwhile, companies in other businesses are selectively recruiting into specific business niches.

“Some of the best job prospects for chemists will be in independent testing labs or in the chemical manufacturing space, working in R&D related to oil and gas, petrochemicals, and plastics,” according to Jamie Stacey, vice president for science at Kelly Services, which offers outsourcing, staffing, and workforce consulting services.

Across multiple industries, Stacey says she sees increased opportunity for chemists in quality-assurance and quality-control roles. “We are also observing a large need for analytical chemists who have varied instrumentation expertise,” she says, adding that B.S.-level chemists are more in demand than those with M.S. or Ph.D. degrees in those roles.

At the same time, Stacey says there’s been strong demand for chemists in the temporary-staffing market, something she does not interpret as bad news. The emergence of this trend is less a sign of companies’ aversion to hiring full-time employees and more a reflection of a new workplace paradigm, she says. “More employees want to work on their terms and that may mean working as consultants or doing temporary project work for multiple companies. And more companies across many businesses see the value of a workforce they can flex depending on their immediate business needs,” she says.

Surprisingly, companies in the pharmaceutical industry are hiring, albeit selectively. Despite what Stacey describes as a “slowing of the drug discovery pipeline,” she is observing moderate demand for medicinal chemists in geographical markets including the San Francisco Bay Area; New York and New Jersey; Research Triangle Park, N.C.; and Boston.

For his part, Josh Albert, managing partner of life-sciences-focused executive search firm Klein Hersh International, is more bullish in his predictions about pharma job prospects. He insists that demand for chemists and other scientists in pharma and biotech firms is picking up and is “much stronger than it was a year ago.” Most notably, he says, companies are hiring midlevel Ph.D. chemists—a group whose jobs were brutally slashed in downsizing efforts—at a rate that he has not seen in many years. At the same time, companies are actively recruiting freshly minted chemists and other scientists on college campuses.

Help For The Unemployed

Many chemists are still struggling to find jobs. To address the urgent needs of its unemployed members, the American Chemical Society offers an extensive suite of career assistance tools and discounts. ACS offers all of its members a number of other free career assistance tools. For links to the career-related benefits and resources for members, visit

What’s behind invigorated hiring plans? “There is plenty of venture money coming in, initial public offerings have occurred, and new companies are starting,” Albert says. At the same time, “companies are focusing on a vast array of therapeutic areas. And some are hiring scientists to handle more of the work that they have been outsourcing to other countries” as they seek the right balance between internal and external hiring models, he says.

Although the new pharma jobs won’t come close to offsetting the job cuts made through downsizing efforts, they represent a shift, Albert says. “Hiring in chemistry is really coming back. It’s a robust time.”

GlaxoSmithKline, for one, has been bringing more chemists into its ranks. To date in 2014, the company has hired about two dozen chemists worldwide into its discovery and development organizations, “representing a considerable increase relative to 2013,” says Krista B. Goodman, head of medicinal chemistry in the company’s Molecular Discovery Research group within R&D.“GSK recognizes that chemistry is central to drug discovery and development, and maintaining our expertise in these areas is critical to delivering our pipeline,” she adds. “Looking ahead, chemistry will continue to be an area for recruitment.”

In GSK’s R&D organization, job opportunities are located predominantly at the firm’s sites in Philadelphia; Research Triangle Park; and Stevenage, England, Goodman says. GSK is seeking M.S.-, Ph.D.-, and postdoc-level candidates with diverse skill sets, she adds. In particular, it is recruiting chemical biologists, computational chemists, and synthetic chemists with experience in state-of-the-art reactions. “We value highly productive candidates with a track record of creatively solving complex problems and demonstrated learning agility.”

Genentech is also hiring. Its openings are all in the U.S. By the end of 2014, the company will have hired approximately 35 new scientists and associates, including some chemists and biochemists, according to Radhika Ragsdale, principal staffing consultant at Genentech Research & Early Development.

In addition, “we will be hiring a number of new scientists and associates with expertise in biochemistry and chemistry in 2015 in Genentech’s Small Molecule Drug Discovery group,” Ragsdale says. The new hires will support the expansion of Genentech’s small-molecule portfolio, which currently represents almost 50% of the company’s total research and clinical development portfolio.

Genentech will be focused on finding M.S.- or Ph.D.-level scientists who are fresh out of school or who have up to eight years of industry experience. The firm will also consider Ph.D.s with postdoctoral experience. Among those recruited will be candidates with expertise in analytical chemistry, discovery chemistry, formulation, process chemistry, and biochemical and cellular pharmacology, Ragsdale says.

Merck & Co. is recruiting scientists, despite announcing a year ago that it would shed another 8,500 jobs from its workforce, with half the cuts coming from R&D and half from marketing and administration (C&EN, Oct. 7, 2013, page 9). “Merck is currently hiring in areas of strategic interest, across multiple scientific disciplines,” according to Michael H. Kress, vice president of process and analytical chemistry.

HAPPY CAMPER Chemist Michael Bury works at GSK’s R&D facility in Upper Providence, Pa. A GSK chemist takes a break at the company’s Stevenage, U.K. site.
Credit: Yue Li/GSK
Chemist Michael Bury works at GSK’s R&D facility in Upper Providence, Pa.

The company also continues to support the postdoctoral research fellowship program that it launched two years ago (C&EN, Sept. 10, 2012, page 48), according to Christopher J. Welch, a senior principal scientist who is cochair of the program. Under the program, Merck will be posting 26 new openings in the next couple of weeks, he says. The postdocs will come from a range of scientific disciplines including chemistry and biochemistry and will be spread across the company’s U.S. sites.

Companies that service pharma firms are also recruiting. Contract manufacturing organizations (CMOs) are accelerating hiring of chemists and other scientists in a multidisciplinary effort to streamline chemical processes that support the development and launch of new drugs (C&EN, Sept. 29, page 18).

Cambrex, a CMO focused on active pharmaceutical ingredients, says it is actively recruiting qualified chemists, particularly analytical chemists, as well as process and project engineers, according to Louis R. Fioccola, senior director for human resources. The company has openings for chemists and chemical engineers at its plants in Charles City, Iowa, and Karlskoga, Sweden. Its Italian arm, Cambrex Profarmaco Milano, is also hiring chemists.

Cambrex considers candidates who have a B.S. in chemistry, extensive experience in a laboratory environment, knowledge of analytical instrumentation, a strong chemistry theory foundation, and a proven ability to handle multiple projects effectively, Fioccola says.

Companies involved with petrochemicals and plastics, especially at sites in Houston and along the Gulf Coast, are also hiring more chemists and chemical engineers. Many new opportunities have arisen from the U.S. shale gas boom, which has made low-cost fuel and feedstocks available.

As a result of numerous capacity expansion projects, “filling the chemist talent space will be a huge issue for companies” in these businesses, Kelly Services’ Stacey says. At the same time, within the oil and gas and petrochemicals industries, “many mature chemists will be retiring within the next dozen years, so the talent and experience gap will be immense,” she says. Consequently, “I think this is the time for firms to hire to mitigate this skill gap.”

Chevron Phillips Chemical is proactively addressing these challenges. “Our primary focus is to hire chemical and mechanical engineers to support our aggressive growth strategy as well as replace our retirement-eligible workforce,” says Greg A. Wagner, vice president of human resources. The firm will also continue to selectively hire chemists to work in R&D, he says.

By the end of 2014, Chevron Phillips Chemical intends to have hired roughly 50 chemical engineers worldwide, the same number as last year, Wagner says.

The company plans to bring in some freshly minted chemical engineers as well as petrochemical professionals with five to 20 years of experience, he says.

New hires will support some of Chevron Phillips Chemical’s major investments. For example, the company broke ground this year on a major U.S. Gulf Coast petrochemicals project, which involves building an ethane cracker at its Cedar Bayou plant in Baytown, Texas, and two polyethylene units adjacent to its Sweeny plant in Old Ocean, Texas.

Chemical engineers can find opportunities not only at manufacturing sites that support the company’s Texas-based business groups that handle polyethylene, normal α-olefins, and aromatics but also at the firm’s petrochemical sites in the Middle East, in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Wagner says.

At BASF, the hiring outlook for chemists, biochemists, and chemical engineers remains strong into next year across all of its North American locations, according to Luciana Amaro, vice president of talent development and strategy.

As in 2014, “we have a consistent demand for top talent in the areas of engineering, research, development, and technology at all levels. These hiring needs are particularly acute in the Gulf Coast of the U.S.,” Amaro says.

“North America is an important market for BASF as it has significant potential for growth. Without a doubt, the shale gas boom is a positive development for the petrochemical industry and hence for the U.S. economy,” she says.

Between 2014 and 2018, BASF plans to invest 25% of its global capital expenditures of €20 billion ($25.5 billion) in North America. For example, BASF and Norwegian nitrogen fertilizer producer Yara will jointly build a world-scale ammonia plant at the existing BASF site in Freeport, Texas (C&EN, May 19, page 15). Also, BASF announced that it is evaluating a potential investment in a world-scale methane-to-propylene complex on the U.S. Gulf Coast, to supply the company’s regional operations, Amaro adds (C&EN, May 12, page 16). “All these investment projects will drive demand in engineering.”

In 2015, BASF plans to continue to actively recruit candidates into its engineering professional development program, a selective, rotational program used to bring top talent into BASF and expose them to multiple challenges and experiences across engineering, she says. It is also recruiting into a similar program for Ph.D. chemists and other scientists and a leadership development program for future business leaders. “This is a significant step to keep pace with increased demand for top talent in the STEM disciplines,” Amaro says. To help fill these slots as well as others, BASF is stepping up its recruiting efforts on a number of fronts, including on college campuses.

To help it connect with the best candidates, BASF is poised to launch its new global careers website, which will allow interested candidates to meet some of BASF’s employees by participating in virtual chats, Amaro says.

In filling all positions, “we seek candidates who are creative, open, responsible and entrepreneurial,” Amaro says. “They need to be dedicated to safety, customer-focused, and able to engage others,” she says. “In addition, they must support lifelong learning and must be capable of making global connections with the company’s customers and colleagues around the world.”

For its part, Dow Corning says it expects next year’s hiring plans to be consistent with this year’s plans.

“Although the global economic conditions have been volatile for the past several years, Dow Corning continues to strategically and aggressively hire the best and brightest chemical engineers and technical specialists—experienced professionals and younger future leaders—in multiple areas of specialization to support the company’s investments in silicon-based product development and innovation,” according to talent acquisition director Angelo Bianchini.


Job openings will be spread across several locations, including Dow Corning’s corporate headquarters in Midland, Mich., and multiple manufacturing and research facilities in North and South America, Europe, and Asia.

When recruiting to fill engineering and chemist roles, “Dow Corning looks for self-motivated people who are driven to solve complex problems and who thrive working in a robust team setting,” Bianchini says. “We are looking for people who are passionate about learning and creating.”

As it looks ahead, St. Paul-based 3M is expanding its workforce. “The company plans to bring on 2,200 new hires in the U.S. in the next five years with an emphasis on high-growth geographies and on R&D and sales,” according to spokeswoman Jocelyn D. Parker. The company won’t specify how many of those jobs might involve chemists or chemical engineers.

Credit: Altana
Scientists in Altana’s BYK Additives & Instruments group examine a coating sample at the company’s Wesel, Germany, service lab.
FRESH OPPORTUNITIES Scientists in Altana’s BYK Additives & Instruments group examine a coating sample at the company’s Wesel, Germany, service lab.
Credit: Altana
Scientists in Altana’s BYK Additives & Instruments group examine a coating sample at the company’s Wesel, Germany, service lab.

New job opportunities are also popping up at numerous specialty chemical companies. Swiss company Clariant says it is implementing robust hiring plans that will support strategic projects in North America in its Catalysts, Industrial & Consumer Specialties, and Oil & Mining Services businesses, according to Kenneth L. Golder, North American region head, who is based in Charlotte, N.C.

Most notably, Clariant is recruiting to support two plant expansions: at its catalysts production site in Louisville and at its industrial and consumer specialties manufacturing site in Clear Lake, Texas.

Currently, the company is recruiting chemists and chemical engineers at all educational levels into jobs in R&D, analytical areas, technical sales, technical services, production management, project management, and plant engineering, Golder says.

Specialty chemical company Altana continues to actively hire new talent, including chemists and chemical engineers, to support sales and R&D spending growth, according to Chief Executive Officer Matthias L. Wolfgruber. As it seeks to double its business between 2013 and 2020, Altana is looking to hire both young professionals and skilled workers in almost all areas within its four business units: BYK Additives & Instruments, Eckart Effect Pigments, Elantas Electrical Insulation, and Actega Coatings & Sealants.

Although the company is based in Wesel, Germany, much of its growth and hiring is focused within the U.S., which is “experiencing a revival in Altana’s target electrical, coatings, inks, and plastics markets,” Wolfgruber says. “The U.S. is an innovation driver. That’s why we need to be there,” he adds. “And that’s where we want to attract the best chemists, biochemists, and chemical engineers.”

In June, the company opened a $50 million expansion of its specialty additives facility in Wallingford, Conn. The facility doubles production capacity in the U.S. for the additives, which are used in coatings, inks, and plastics to impart properties such as gloss and scratch resistance.

As it brings in new talent, Altana seeks those with strong technical skills as well as “an entrepreneurial mind-set and an ability to anticipate customer needs and act across divisional and national boundaries,” Wolfgruber says.

As companies share their hiring plans, career counselors and professors on college campuses are observing what they hope is an upturn in demand for their chemistry, biochemistry, and chemical engineering students and graduates.

Patricia Simpson, director of academic advising and career counseling and placement in the School of Chemical Sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), sees some positive signs even this early in the academic year. The first two of the school’s career fairs “sold out within hours and much faster than last year,” she says. “So we definitely have more companies coming to campus to recruit this fall.

“And as companies begin to make offers, they are asking students to accept or decline them quickly, which usually indicates strong demand or at least that companies are eager to lock in the strong candidates,” Simpson says.

She is also observing renewed recruiting interest from big pharma. “All the big players in the pharmaceutical industry have already appeared on campus this semester, which is a major change from the last couple of years when we only had a few drug companies show up,” she says. “So that is very encouraging.”

Across most industries, companies seem to be looking more for Ph.D. chemists, but undergraduate chemical engineering is picking up, too, she says.

IN GOOD COMPANY Students wait to talk with Kelsey Joannides of Momentum Scientific at a career fair at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Credit: Tian (Lucy) Lu/University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Students wait to talk with Kelsey Joannides of Momentum Scientific at a career fair at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Jeff Sackaroff, associate director of external relations for University Career Services, says he has seen an uptick in the number of companies opting to come to campus career fairs to recruit rather than simply post positions online as some have in the past. However, he has not seen “much of a change” in the pace of hiring of chemistry students and grads. Those students who are completing a B.S. in chemistry “seem to be the most sought after,” and they are moving primarily into pharma, medical research, or information technology roles, he says.

On the West Coast of the U.S., the demand picture isn’t much different. “Overall, we have seen a slight increase in the number of organizations that are looking to hire chemistry and chemical engineering majors,” says Shannon Linebarger, interim assistant director for employer relations and customer service at the University of California, Los Angeles. Those chemistry and chemical engineering students and grads who go into industry are landing internships or full-time jobs most frequently in energy, food and beverage, and green chemistry companies, she says.

At UC San Diego, “chemistry graduates—at least at the Ph.D. level—seem to be finding positions, although many are postdoctoral positions,” reports Seth M. Cohen, professor and chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry. “Students in my research group rarely get more than one or two job offers, and most take the first offer they get and are generally quite happy with it,” he says.

“Start-up companies in several fields including biotech and energy seem to be most eager to hire at the moment,” Cohen says. “They appear to be more willing to take risks on younger scientists than more established companies are.”

For students and fresh chemistry grads who are competing in a job market brimming with experienced candidates, nabbing one of the few opportunities is tough. Having a strong résumé that boasts a high grade-point average, work and leadership experience, and an impressive slate of skills isn’t always enough, UIUC’s Simpson says. “In some cases, what really sets students apart is the ability to be confident, to sell themselves, to show a company that they have done research and figured out a way that they can solve a problem or fit into a special niche there,” she adds. “You have to be able to tell a story.” In today’s still-weak job market, “the job search process is truly a sales game.”  


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