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Layoffs on the mind

Chemjobber on how to not lose your identity in an uncertain economy

by Chemjobber
November 12, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 45


Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Layoffs will happen. Don't let them catch you by surprise.

I’ve been working in industrial chemistry since 2009, and I haven’t been laid off yet. But like bad yields and tricky emulsions, layoffs have always been with us, and layoffs are never far from my mind.

I remember as a child waiting for a bus on a busy city street with my father, an engineer, as he glumly mentioned to me that his workplace was undergoing a “reorganization.” He didn’t bother to explain that euphemism to his kindergarten-age son. Years later, he revealed to me that his company had decided on a particularly cruel way to implement its plans: it told everyone in the department that they had been laid off and then asked them to reapply for their positions. I suspect there were magically fewer positions available after the announcement. Sadly, it was not the only time the ax was swung at his company.

The subject of layoffs came crashing into my life again when I was in graduate school. At the time, my favorite chemistry blogger, Derek Lowe, wrote that his work site was going to be closed and that his position would be eliminated. My close friend, who was the best man at my wedding, was also at that site, and he told me via text that he had been let go as well. I learned then what many others knew: the pharmaceutical industry wasn’t immune to layoffs.

Then came the Great Recession from December 2007 to June 2009. During that time, and for many years afterward, it seemed like there was an announcement every other month about a new group of scientists that were going to need to find new places to work.

When I became a postdoctoral fellow at a pharmaceutical company in 2007, I arrived in the wake of a large reorganization. My least favorite memory from that time is a newly laid-off colleague making a wry joke about the CEO, which started in chuckles and ended in tears.

Layoffs may be on the rise again. In October, the consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas noted that layoffs were up 4% in the pharmaceutical industry and up 16% in the chemical industry this year compared with 2018. And just last month, we learned of the closure of Amgen’s neuroscience site in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the loss of 180 positions.

How do chemists keep sane during uncertain economic times? When I listen to experienced scientists who have been through layoffs, what I hear in their voices are weary determination and similar advice: try to keep a clear head, be aware of the vagaries of the stock market and quarterly results, and control the things that you can control—namely, the science that you’re doing.

I have to ask myself, though—How is that even possible? How is it possible to not think about a disruption in your career, a career that gives so many people meaning and purpose? Chemistry gives chemists fascinating, intricate problems to solve, a chance to try to do good in the world, and an opportunity to create something useful and interesting. Often (but not often enough), these positions are well paid, have generous benefits, and help chemists support themselves and their loved ones. How can you control the fear of losing so much of your life?

Having never experienced a layoff, I can’t offer firsthand advice. But I think it’s important to try to spend some time cultivating our identities other than “chemist.” You may also be a friend, a spouse, and a community member. While those aren’t the identities that define how you make a living, it’s important to be a whole person so that on the maybe-inevitable day when “chemist” is taken from you, you don’t completely lose your identity.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at

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



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Chemists need to take notes from other disciplines (November 13, 2019 11:29 AM)
Thank you for the interesting article. I know back in the late 70's, early 80's there was a lot of uncertainty in the sciences. Many chemist friends from the time have told me that on Friday's, for about a year, you didn't want to be called into a meeting. Basically, you wouldn't be there on Monday morning.

I agree partially with your statement about a chemist needing to have more identity than just their occupation. I feel that our discipline encourages this however. What I haven't seen is enough pride in it though. I'm proud of my degree and my science. Others should be too.

Over the years, I've worked with many chemical engineers and as chemists we can learn something from that discipline as it is about as close as one will get to chemists. Many chemical engineers stop at a bachelor's degree, while in chemistry you are looked down upon without a PhD. In engineering, work experience is highly valued and doing work in the field props one up rather than accolades. Most engineers I've met think it's odd when someone has a PhD in engineering, asking what limitations this person had that they needed higher education.

Do not misunderstand the purpose of these statements, there is nothing wrong with higher level education or pursuing an advanced degree. I do think that chemistry has a marketing problem. Simply reading wiki about chemical concepts does not make you a chemist, but chemists could use a little more arrogance when it comes to their discipline. Think of the last interaction you've had with someone in IT. They explain it as though you can't use a computer properly.

Chemists harness the power of atoms, something truly amazing. In this day and age, the statement 'better living through chemistry' has never been more true. There are plenty of problems out there to be solved by chemists, but we shouldn't be dismissed as to our importance and how difficult our tasks can be. I challenge people to make one small step towards increasing their value in whatever organization they are in. When you accomplish something, even something menial, don't brush it off and say 'oh, it was easy/simple'. Say thank you, then explain the science, show your mastery, and make the other person realize how much value you have and how much you bring to the table.
ivan (November 13, 2019 5:24 PM)
I started my career in the Engineering Service Industry providing intellectual services to major Oi Companies such as Chevron, Exxon etc....Today this Industry engaged in the engineering sand construction of large complex facilities even Petrochemical complexes are out of business in California and some front-end work is conducted in Texas. Otherwise the engineering/construction is now done overseas, India, Kuwait, Qatar etc...

I do have several comments in regards to the process of outsourcing this type f engineering occupation :

(1 ) I would like to add the comments concerning the Process or Chemical Engineering Profession from a retired Project manger with a major Engineering Services Organization:

"The saying when I was in the engineering side as opposed to the project side of the business was that xxxxx was a giant job shop. That is one reason I moved to project. I can't believe I made if for 30 years without going out the door. As far as design in the petro -chem business I believe that engineering has become a commodity. Whoever has the right pieces of paper and will do engineering the cheapest gets the job. If I were starting today in Chem E I would aim to be the local environmental expert. It seems to me to be a more secure situation.

I would like to add with a good sense of loss the following observations of my own:

(1) I remember visiting CF Braun in the City of Alhambra, CA (1989 ?). This organization was known for excellent engineering standards. The Heat Transfer Research Institute was right next door to their Headquarters.

I met with the head of Process Engineering. He seemed fairly young. As I spoke to him He showed me a large steel door vault where the Engineering Design Standards developed by CF Braun career engineers as well as part of the California Middle Class I suppose for a period of years (??). The standards where kept in very expensive green color binders with golden lettering on the covers. I was impressed.

I returned for a visit years later after the purchase of CF Braun by Kuwait an Islamic Nation. When I looked into the vault, the steel door was gone and all of the Engineering Standards' binders were gone.

I though to myself Intellectual Property worth how much ?? now in the hands of foreign interests and possibly enemies .........

(2 )In a similar Fashion when a company like Boeing allowed China to build cargo and Passenger Airplanes, The Chinese were handed the Engineering Standards that may have taken Middle Class Engineers in the USA decades for free. As I recall the Los Angeles Times Article (??) mentioned that this was Intellectual Property handed to the Chinese for free but of great value in reality!!.

Today China has an ever growing Industrial Military Complex with Jet Fighters that equal the sophistication (technical) of our own Lockheed F-35 by most accounts.

Raj Misra (November 14, 2019 11:06 AM)
I am asked for advice from budding scientists about careers, many times children of friends. My advice is to follow your passion but be aware of the vulnerabilities that come with it. They will probably get worse, not better. If you can handle these, then go ahead... if not, there are other more stable professions where you have greater control that can make your life rewarding and less stressful. Most of all, choose a line of work in which you will become more valuable as you gain experience and knowledge throughout your career.
ivan (November 14, 2019 7:03 PM)
When I started my career as a Chemical Engineer in the area of Process Engineering I met an older Principal Engineer whom decided to become a Chemical Engineer instead of a Professional Musician playing the Saxophone.

He said to me :" I am glad I made the decision to study Chemical Engineering because as a Musician I would probably would not have made any Money to make a reasonable living."

Others in the organization He and I were part of always referred to him as one of the best process Engineers in the corporation .....
The times I sat in his office to discuss a problem assigned to me by him, He was always one to be a real professional. I can not make the same comment about other senior level engineers in the same corporation !!! He had traveled all over the World and worked in South America in the area of Mining as well.
Frank (November 15, 2019 9:22 AM)
I have worked over my career in Academia, Industry (Paper and Pharmaceuticals) as well as Government. In reflection, I think it is best that chemists and scientists acquire good skill in scientific fundamentals. If you have such skills it makes the transition to new opportunities easier. Publication of your work as much as possible and participation in professional meetings is also important as you will meet people that can be helpful to you at a later time. I once got a job at 2:00 AM at a conference by simply drinking beer with a fine scientist. Be kind to your subordinates, I obtained employment by recommendation of a former subordinate twice.

I think there are challenges ahead for chemists and scientists. The quality of chemistry graduates (B.S.) is highly variable. Some are excellent and many have failed to acquire even the most basic knowledge. Schools bear the responsibility of graduating properly educated students. The diminishing population of candidates (18-21 years old) and the drive to maintain enrollment make this task a particular challenge.

The Pharmaceutical Industry is in a particularly sad situation. The discovery and development of new drugs is expensive, risky and difficult. There is certainly no clear path to selecting and creating new compounds. The industry is also facing enormous price pressures. In certainly appears that customers in the United States bear the brunt of the expense for new drugs. Spreading this cost over the rest of the world perhaps would improve the situation a little bit. I expect great job instability in this industry for some time to come. Scientists need to become as flexible as possible.
ivan (November 15, 2019 3:07 PM)
The impact of implementing automation and robotics on the employment picture including science and engineering is most important in the decision making of a future career short-term. Bill gates and the founder of Facebook stated (my recollection) that about 40 million jobs will be lost in the USA due to AI. Obviously, other employment such as operations and maintenance of the robots will open up long-term.

An article on The Los Angeles Times in 2018 illustrates the impact of AI on jobs in California (about a 60% job loss all across California mostly in manual labor and other clerical type work):

Simliarly, Robotics is also affecting manufacturing of automobiles in the USA :

Robotics in the immediate future will result in the loss of 200,000 jobs in the banking industry as well:

I believe that Adidas in Germany and some corporations in japan are already building fully automated manufacturing facilities taking away the manufacturing of shoes (Adidas) for example from China. The result is a German made product that they can export.

I do not yet see much in the way of engineering and building hi-tech manufacturing facilities in the USA. I think this has to happen, it is inevitable. This way the USA will bring back the manufacturing of gods within the USA and have a product they can export.

Because of the rapid implementation of AI or robotics the concept of Basic Universal Income is already being discussed by economists and political scientist for people displaced by such technology and incapable to find work or employed but making insufficient income. I believe that the mayor of the City of Stockton in the Central valley of California is considering such a measure ????

It is my belief as a consequence of the above automation that employment in science would be in the Health Industries such as pharmaceuticals but mostly R&D. In the case of engineering, I think the area of environmental engineering, and areas such as water treatment as well renewable energy.

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