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Employment

How will the US chemistry job market look in 2020?

While a recession doesn’t appear imminent, some sectors may experience a slowdown

by Chemjobber
December 11, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 48

 

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Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
With chemistry employment likely at a peak, let's try to hold on.

The Thanksgiving turkey has long been roasted, carved, and turned into soup, which means it’s time to boil down my predictions for the 2020 US chemistry job market.

Last year I thought a recession might be in the cards for 2019, but the US has not seen any significant declines in gross domestic product (GDP). In fact, the first quarter of this year showed a healthy 3.1% increase in GDP from the previous quarter, with modest 2.0% increases in both the second and third quarters. So unless something dramatic happens, a recession will not occur in 2019.

The broad consensus among Wall Street economists is that there won’t be a recession next year either. Why do we care about the broader economy? Because scientists’ employment typically rises and falls with it, which isn’t surprising, as the chemical enterprise touches nearly all parts of the economy.

How did I do with my predictions of the 2018–19 academic job market? With Andrew Spaeth, I compile the tenure-track faculty positions in the US and Canada advertised each hiring season. Last year, I predicted that the 2018–19 academic year would bring 500–600 positions overall. We finished this June with 592 positions posted. I’ll call that a win, along with my prediction that 250–300 of the open positions would be at PhD-granting universities. We ended up with 303 available positions at PhD-granting institutions.

I predict that hiring in the 2019–20 academic year for positions that begin in the summer of 2020 will be slightly lower than last year’s total. Because of the record number of postings this August and September, I wondered if we were on track for a record year. However, as November progressed, the number of new positions added began to fall, and the total number has kept pace with that of 2018–19 for this period. The percentage of open positions that are at PhD-granting institutions (57%) matches that from previous years, and the percentage of positions for assistant professors (74%) continues a trend from years before. We’re also tracking, for the first time, positions for teaching assistant professors. These professors play a crucial role in the education of students at larger universities, and we want to better understand how many people end up in these unique positions. So far, 34 of these positions have been posted for the 2019–20 hiring season.

Most of us know that the majority of chemistry graduates do not become academics. So what does 2020 look like for the rest of us? It appears to be mixed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the chemical manufacturing subsector currently employs 861,000 people and has been on a slow and steady upswing since January 2011. Keep in mind, however, that these numbers include everyone who works in this subsector, from the forklift operator to the CEO, not just chemists and chemical engineers.

In October and November, however, a key economic indicator, the Institute of Supply Management’s manufacturing index, showed that the manufacturing sector shrank. This contraction is primarily due to external pressures, such as the trade wars and the relatively strong US dollar, which makes US goods more expensive. Nevertheless, home construction and consumer spending, including the purchases of new homes and cars, haven’t slowed significantly. These major purchases drive revenues for the Dows and DuPonts of the world. I expect industrial chemical employment to remain relatively steady in 2020.

This year, I’d like to highlight a new source for tracking industrial chemical employment. The anonymous proprietor of Common Organic Chemistry (commonorganicchemistry.com) has been listing organic chemistry jobs in industry in the US since late 2015, often finding positions that my many searches have missed. Broadly, the number and types of positions that employers have been posting have not decreased. On this list, similar to 2018, the number of small-company positions in San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been steady, along with the number of positions at large pharma companies. Considering that 2020 appears to be a low-interest-rate environment, I expect that small-company formation will continue apace, which is good news for chemists looking for adventure and fortune in the small-company world. If a downturn happens in 2020, these smaller companies are likely to be hit first with layoffs. While no one wants to plan for losing a job, it’s wise to keep your résumé and LinkedIn profile updated.

I ended last year’s prediction column with the belief that we were at or near a peak for chemical employment. This prediction remains for 2020. We will inevitably navigate an economic downturn together, but here is hoping for a steady chemistry job market in 2020.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at chemjobber.blogspot.com. Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at cenm.ag/benchandcubicle.

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

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