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Employment of Chemists, And What We Can Do About It

by Donna Nelson, ACS President-Elect
October 26, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 42

Credit: Courtesy of Donna Nelson
Photograph of Donna Nelson.
Credit: Courtesy of Donna Nelson

The situation and its evolution: Fifty years ago, the expression “unemployed chemist” was rare. Young graduates were quickly hired, expecting to retire from the same place 45 years later. In the “golden ’60s,” organizations were recruiting from the universities. Students frequently had multiple job offers before graduation. At ACS’s Employment Clearing House, for every job seeker there were four times as many opportunities. The situation radically changed in the ’70s, as the space race came to a conclusion. Suddenly, there were about four times as many job seekers registered at the Employment Clearing House as jobs offered. The excess continues today, when 16% of young graduates do not have employment six months after entering the job market. While the society discussed and studied the situation from time to time in various modes, no solution was found that significantly alleviated the problem.

My promise and progress so far: In my election statement, I promised to respond to major concerns of ACS members, and I shall keep that promise. So far, I have concentrated mostly on identifying ways to improve the job situation significantly, because this seems to be the greatest concern of ACS members. While ACS cannot create jobs, we can identify causes and remedies for the mismatch between jobs and job seekers.

I appointed a 15-member task force from academe, government, and industry and charged it with (1) looking broadly at issues related to employment of chemistry professionals in the U.S. and (2) examining the plight of demographic subgroups, people at different education and experience levels, and different sectors of employment reflecting the situation of all chemical professionals, not just ACS members.

The task force is divided into seven two-member study groups addressing the following special topics, not listed in any order of importance:

◾ What factors determine the balance between supply and demand?
◾ What is the employment situation for technicians?
What are the benefits and handicaps of possible certification, licensing, and registration of chemical professionals?
◾ Do we prepare our graduates for jobs offered by industry?
◾ What causes unemployment among young graduate and midcareer chemical professionals, and how can we help?
◾ What is needed to increase underrepresented groups in the workforce?
◾ What global factors influence the U.S. employment situation?
◾ How do outsourcing and immigration contribute to this situation?

We advise our students to study chemistry because it is interesting and rewarding, but this is only true if steady jobs await. While nothing in life is certain, they should have a realistic expectation that their years of study will be rewarded by a career in chemistry upon graduation. If this is not the forecast, then they should be told so they can make their own well-informed decisions.

What will be done: The task force met at the ACS national meeting in Boston and has interacted continuously through teleconferences and e-mail. It will issue a preliminary report at the ACS Council meeting at the ACS national meeting in San Diego next spring, where I will seek a half-hour open discussion session for councilor input and critique. Some task force members will discuss their findings at a presidential symposium, followed by a panel discussion, inviting input from the audience.

Requesting your help: For San Diego, I am also organizing a poster session covering every aspect of the charge given to the task force. I invite input, suggestions, and critiques from every segment of our community in order to increase the chances of identifying solutions to the problems that face our profession. You can submit a poster to this session by going online to ACS’s Meeting Abstracts Programming System (MAPS) for the ACS national meeting in San Diego and selecting the session titled “Discussions With the President’s Task Force on Employment” inside the PRES Program. If you have questions about submissions to this poster session, please contact the task force cochair, Attila Pavlath (, or the program co-organizer, Debbie Crans ( The deadline for submissions is Oct. 31.

Additional ACS member concerns: Additional member concerns will be addressed in poster sessions of contributed posters in the PRES Program at the ACS national meeting in San Diego. The first session, called “Diversity—Quantification—Success,” will address the use of data to drive efforts to diversify the chemical sciences. The second one, titled “Is There a Crisis in Organic Chemistry?” will address the reduction of programs requiring organic chemistry. These poster sessions have been organized to assist and build community efforts to address these topics. I hope you will take advantage of these opportunities for discussion and contribute your ideas.

These are opportunities for each member to help ACS communities grow together via teamwork and improve our society.

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


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