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Europe Seeks Chemists

Regional chemical industry strengthens ties with educators to build skills and ensure employment needs are filled

by Alex Scott
June 15, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 24

An image of the EU employment panel.
Credit: Alex Scott/C&EN
Salzer reveals a positive employment situation for European chemists.

A pan-European survey of the skills and employment profiles of chemists—the first comprehensive study of its kind—indicates that only 3% of Europe’s chemists are unemployed. Although this is good news for Europe’s chemists, the survey appears to affirm chemical company concerns about a lack of slack in the system when it comes to hiring. Shortages loom of chemical engineers and chemical technicians, in particular, companies say.

The survey was published earlier this month by the European Chemistry Thematic Network (ECTN), an organization representing universities across Europe, and commissioned by the European Commission. Based on results gathered in 2013, it features responses from more than 4,440 chemists from across the European Union.

In an attempt to prevent shortfalls in the number of skilled employees, chemical companies are looking to work more closely with educators to ensure chemists graduate with the skills the sector needs. EU policy-makers are on board and are seeking to develop the right training and education programs to create the chemists that both companies and academia require.


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A web of EU and national initiatives, including those under the EU’s Horizon 2020 science funding program, already aims to fill skills gaps identified by industry. At a time when the industry is calling for greater investment in chemistry education and training, however, Horizon 2020’s budget is being squeezed.

“The industry faces a large and increasing need to attract new talent in the field of chemistry,” says Sophie Wilmet, head of education for the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC), an organization representing Europe’s largest chemical firms. “Greater numbers of chemists will be needed in fields such as toxicology and testing, surface chemistry, nanomaterials, and engineering, as well as multidisciplinary understanding. Educating university chemistry students in soft skills including project management and communications is also important for future success.”

Within academia one problem is that professors are recognized for publishing in peer-reviewed publications, not necessarily for being good educators. “And the education system is often designed to produce good researchers for the academic community.” For example, there’s a lack of focus on patents in education because they are not considered by the academic community to be important, Wilmet says.

Despite industry pressure on educators and governments to address skills shortfalls, anecdotal evidence suggests that some parts of Europe are already lacking in certain types of chemists. “It has not been so easy to recruit scientists in the U.K.,” says David A. Ainsworth, chief technical officer at Oxis Energy, a battery materials start-up based in Abingdon, England. The firm has tripled its staff to 55 in the past three years. But Oxis has found it hard to recruit battery materials specialists in the U.K. and has turned to France and other places to fill its employment needs.

Ainsworth’s struggles are in keeping with ECTN’s findings. Of 705 managers surveyed, 178 reported problems recruiting chemists. Hiring difficulties were encountered by 35% of managers surveyed in the U.K., 30% in Italy, and about 10% each in Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland. Lower rates of problems hiring chemists were reported for the rest of Europe.

The flip side, according to the survey, is that even new graduates in Europe find the job market to be straightforward. After graduation, 77% of European chemists surveyed found a job immediately. “For young graduates, the situation is not too bad,” says Re­i­ner Salzer, a professor of analytical chemistry at Dresden University of Technology, in Germany, and the survey’s lead author.

Blue-chip companies such as Dow Chemical say the caliber of chemists that they can hire in Europe is good. “We can attract very good candidates,” says Howard Chase, head of government affairs for Dow in Europe. “We can get sufficient, very good chemists and top-class related skills such as chemical engineering and biochemistry. But you have to compete very well to get the very best.”

Even though Dow is currently attracting sufficient numbers of chemists in Europe, it anticipates that potential pressures in the talent pipeline—including European chemical regulations such as the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation & Restriction of Chemicals (REACH)—will sustain demand for specialist disciplines such as toxicology and all aspects of environmental management, according to Chase.

At the European level, the EU’s Horizon 2020 program plays a role in supporting the careers of thousands of corporate chemists because it funds research projects and training. The world’s largest research program, with public funds of $90 billion, Horizon 2020 runs from 2014 to 2020.

One of Horizon 2020’s largest initiatives, called Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, has $6.8 billion in funding. It features a joint initiative between industry and academia that, according to CEFIC’s Wilmet, provides chemistry students with opportunities to develop the soft skills that industry needs. The only problem, she adds, is that “the number of students it delivers is limited.”

To encourage would-be chemists to work in industry, CEFIC also leverages the European Technology Platform for Sustainable Chemistry (SusChem), an industry-academic collaboration to revitalize chemistry in Europe. SusChem has a pilot education program to show students cutting-edge projects that chemical firms are working on, such as one to design the factory of the future. “It could be a repository for best practices or even failed projects, so it will hold a lot of knowledge that would not otherwise be taught in the classroom,” Wilmet says of the education program.

Novel recruitment strategies are also being deployed at the corporate level. German specialty chemical firm Evonik Industries says it is “ramping up” its engagement with young chemists across the region through a three-year extension of its partnership with the European Young Chemists’ Network (EYCN), an organization that promotes the nurturing of chemists under the age of 35.

The agreement gives Evonik direct access to qualified interns via 24 youth groups within the European Association for Chemical & Molecular Sciences (EuCheMS), an organization that brings together European chemical societies and represents 160,000 chemists. In return, Evonik provides the interns with training and sponsorship.

“It is a clear example of how the industry-education interface is being strengthened,” says Viviana Fluxà, regulatory affairs manager for CSL Behring, a maker of blood-plasma-derived drugs, and an adviser to EYCN.

As industry seeks more funding to educate and train future industrial chemists, Horizon 2020’s budget is under pressure from EU member states. In recent weeks the European Commission disclosed it will cut Horizon 2020’s budget by $2.5 billion. The cuts could affect a number of programs that directly and indirectly support chemists.

“This could cost up to 1,000 research projects and as many as 7,000 jobs as well as countless other lost commercialization opportunities,” warns David Cole-Hamilton, president of EuCheMS. “Horizon 2020 is fundamental in taking science from demonstration phase to commercialization,” says Cole-Hamilton, who is also an emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. “Without it, the European economy will collapse and we’d be back to mining coal.”

Strong words, but the prospect of reduced Horizon 2020 funding doesn’t seem to faze VCI, the German chemical industry’s leading trade association. Unlike many European countries, Germany has a well-entrenched system for educating upcoming chemists about the industry.

Each year since 1950, the German chemical industry has spent more than $11 million to award scholarships and support chemical education in schools. “We wish that similar activities were established in other industry sectors and in other EU member states,” VCI says.

Career prospects for chemistry graduates in Germany remain positive in the middle to long term, particularly for those graduates in chemistry-related engineering sciences, VCI says. Demand for chemists is strong in fields such as toxicology, electrochemistry, macromolecular chemistry, materials science, and interface chemistry and physics, VCI says. “But now, as in the past, our member companies are expecting a doctorate for R&D careers,” VCI tells C&EN.

According to ECTN’s survey, 44% of European chemists have a doctoral degree and so already meet German company expectations. Meanwhile, 38% of European chemists have a master’s degree and 11% have a bachelor’s degree. This compares with 67%, 16%, and 17%, respectively, in the U.S.

About 18% of all chemists’ highest qualification in Europe is in chemical engineering. This is more than any other chemistry field.

Almost half of all European chemists are employed by industry. The next biggest employer, employing about one-fifth of chemists, is research institutes, followed by higher education, government, and public service organizations.

A chemist shortage in Europe could provide jobs for those outside the region. “What a lot of U.S. chemists may not realize is that chemistry education standards in some European countries are similar to those in the U.S., and there may be career opportunities for U.S. chemists in Europe,” says Pavel Drašar, a professor at the University of Chemistry & Technology in Prague.

But U.S. chemists, as well as those in the EU, should do their homework before picking a country to work in. For instance, the 2013 survey found that the average salary for a chemist with a doctoral degree and three years of work experience is $179,000 in Switzerland, $114,000 in Belgium, and just $6,900 in Romania. The salary difference between Switzerland and Romania is huge, but it doesn’t take into account local living costs, ECTN’s Salzer cautions.

Salzer is hopeful that a second European chemistry employment survey will be commissioned in the next few years. Only then, when trends can be identified, will all of the actors in the chemistry enterprise—from companies to educators to individual chemists—really know whether Europe’s chemistry job market is going their way.  


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