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Improving the employment of chemical professionals

by Donna J. Nelson, ACS Immediate Past-President
December 18, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 49

Credit: David McNeese
Donna Nelson.
Credit: David McNeese

In 2015, during my president-elect year, I appointed a task force to investigate chemical employment in the U.S. We invited input from ACS officials, students, and members—both employed and unemployed—from different demographic backgrounds. I detailed the composition and charge of the task force in an earlier Comment (C&EN, Oct. 26, 2015, page 28).

The task force members put forth much effort but were unable to find consensus on all points discussed. This Comment summarizes points of agreement. Agreement was not reached on issues of immigration and visas, so in April 2017, an ad hoc working group was formed to study these issues more closely.

The task force identified several factors contributing to the present supply-and-demand imbalance in the employment of chemical professionals: (1) The number of newly graduated B.S. chemists has steadily increased over the past 50 years, while the number of manufacturing jobs in chemistry has decreased; (2) many B.S. degree programs offered at colleges and universities lack courses that prepare students for industrial employment, where most chemical employment opportunities exist; and (3) legislation and regulations have insufficiently supported domestic research and chemical employment.

There are no immediate solutions to the challenges of chemical employment, but the following actions may provide opportunities to better prepare chemical professionals for the modern labor market.

Increase transparency in chemical education and employment. ACS should continue to convey the benefits chemistry provides to our lives; however, we must also convey that there is no shortage of traditional chemists. The following 2016–26 Bureau of Labor Statistics projections ( highlight shifting dynamics in chemical employment: biochemists and biophysicists: +11.3%, post-secondary chemistry teachers: +9.9%, chemists: +6.5%, chemical technicians: +3.9%, chemical engineers: +2.5%, chemical plant and system operators: –3.1%, and chemical equipment operators: –3.6%. Meanwhile, ACS New Graduate Survey data show new graduate unemployment growing disproportionately faster than ACS member unemployment. Inflation-adjusted salaries for new graduates at all degree levels are flat or decreasing. These trends also hold for more experienced ACS members. Employment information about the wide range of chemistry careers should be provided to aid students in career decisions.

Review and revise higher education programs to prepare students for the changing employment options of chemists and chemical professionals. The educational system provides outstanding researchers, but the demand for them is far below the supply. For each faculty opening, dozens to hundreds of chemists apply. Some applicants hold two to three postdoctoral positions, broadening their experiences while seeking an academic appointment.

Current chemistry degree course requirements are misaligned with employer expectations of graduates’ skills. Employers seek individuals who have practical work experience and are technologically savvy and have foundational skills such as adaptability, problem-solving ability, and leadership skills. Yet many college graduates entering the labor pool aren’t equipped with these essential skills.

Graduates need educational programs to supply and strengthen these skills. Social, cultural, and professional training, applied courses, and internships can improve postgraduate employability. ACS-approved degree programs should be evaluated for their use in producing employable chemists. Cross-functional training, which bridges new and traditional fields of chemistry, should be evaluated for its impact on student employment prospects.

Increase and strengthen engagement with industry and other private-sector employers. Corporations are dynamic and concerned with profitability, which can negatively impact employment. ACS cannot influence these decisions, but it can work with legislators to encourage keeping and expanding R&D through tax breaks and a science-informed regulatory body.

ACS leaders should leverage the experience and expertise of corporate leaders to discuss employer needs, with the goal of providing targeted programs, products, and services. ACS can encourage industry, government, and private-sector leaders to formulate legislation favorable to industrial job growth and chemistry R&D funding. Leadership from stakeholder committees and divisions can advise the society on employment and education strategies.

Evaluate employment programs, products, and services with diversity in mind. Unemployment and underemployment impact all chemical professionals regardless of demographic categories, such as midcareer professionals, underrepresented groups, technicians, and semiretired chemists. ACS should provide programs, products, and services that address these goals.

ACS External Affairs & Communications, ACS leadership, and ACS members should increase advocacy to support U.S. domestic R&D in the chemical enterprise. Using science and data, the ACS Legislative Action Network, ACS position papers, and proactive engagement with the public can help influence elected officials and the electorate. Topics include regulating chemicals, providing tax incentives for growing and retaining skilled domestic chemistry jobs, and research and development funding.

While ACS has advanced the employability of chemists through its programs, products, and services, more work is needed. I welcome input at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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