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Preparing Our Future Chemical Technicians

by Kara Allen, Chair, ACS Committee On Technician Affairs
February 8, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 6

Credit: Courtesy of Kara Allen
A photo of Kara Allen.
Credit: Courtesy of Kara Allen

As incoming chair of the Committee on Technician Affairs (CTA), I would say one of my greatest passions is helping students prepare for future careers. Getting inspiration from those successful in the field, by hearing stories about their career progression, listening to professional advice, and learning from their past experiences, can help prepare students for graduation and beyond. CTA member Aimée Tomlinson recently sat down with CTA’s 2015 National Chemical Technician Award winner, Jeff Seifferly of Dow Corning, and conducted a question-and-answer session that future chemical technicians will, I hope, find both inspiring and informative.

Credit: Courtesy of Aimée Tomlinson
A photo of Aimée Tomlinson.
Credit: Courtesy of Aimée Tomlinson

What led you to become a chemical technician?

Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Seifferly
A photo of Jeff Seifferly.
Credit: Courtesy of Jeff Seifferly

Even though my college degree was in applied electronic engineering technology, I was able to find meaningful and fulfilling employment with a major chemical company, Dow Corning. I’ve always enjoyed electronics and working with my hands, and I knew that a research position would have a variety of opportunities and challenges. At Dow Corning, I’ve developed specialized skills that have exposed me to novel plasma chemical vapor deposition methods for generation of silicon quantum dots, dielectric materials used in integrated circuit manufacturing, and development of benchmark precursor gases used in the fabrication of second-generation microprocessors.

How have things changed since you started as a chemical technician at Dow Corning?

When I started at Dow Corning, you shared a large desktop computer with a 20-megabyte hard drive and dual floppy drives. The chemical technician of today is expected to be technologically savvy. I started working in electronics research thinking I would be working on a few different projects with a couple of different managers for my entire career. I didn’t anticipate that over 34 years, I’d be working on 35 different projects and reporting to 20 different managers. When I started, I had limited interaction with customers. Now, I travel, work directly with customers, interact with equipment repair personnel and vendors, and transfer technology to various companies.

Are technicians with associate’s degrees still afforded the same opportunities today as they were in the past?

According to Occupational Employment Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a better job outlook and average wage today for recent graduates with associate’s degrees than graduates with bachelor’s or master’s degrees, at least in some industries. Employers are looking for experienced technicians who can act as the bridge between the lab and the consumer, between science and manufacturing. Our local community college has worked closely with local industries to develop a Chemical Process Technology program curriculum to make sure that students are prepared and job-ready. They have a 480-hour Pre-chemical Process Operator Fast Start program, a one-year certificate program, and a two-year associate’s degree program.

Is there a pathway/degree plan that works best for the future chemical technician?

Be aware that the profession combines skills in chemistry, mathematics, physics, biology, and engineering. Technicians with an associate’s degree, on average, will end up making about $500,000 more over their careers than people with a high school diploma, but $500,000 less than people with a bachelor’s degrees. There is still a stereotype that to become a director or manager you will need a bachelor’s degree, so be prepared to continue your education if you want to pursue that career path.

What advice would you give to the chemical technicians of the future?

College does not prepare you for a job, only experience can do that. Join professional societies in your field of work or areas of interest. Seek out technician-based, peer-mentoring groups such as the Mid-Michigan Technicians Group. Attend technical conferences and industry events, and gain new experiences by continuing your education and volunteering within the community, local government, chamber of commerce, and music and arts communities. Develop the ability to work in teams, solve problems, and be responsible for the accuracy and quality of your work.

With the job market being so competitive, what is the best way for new graduates to make themselves more hirable?

You should approach every job interview with basic knowledge of the job you are applying for. Research the company, understand its culture, and use your social network to connect with an employee at that company. Employers are looking for candidates with experience and trainability, a good attitude, and communication skills as well as entrepreneurial, leadership, and internship experience. You should always follow up a job interview with a thank-you note. Realize that hard skills will get you the interview, but you need soft skills to get—and keep—the job.

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


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