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Chemistry’s image is harming talent acquisition

The opportunities in chemical industry are vast, but many aren’t aware of them

by Amelia Greene, special to C&EN
June 29, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 20


A person in a lab coat stands in front of several microphones. They're wearing blue gloves and a silver tie. Behind them is a chemical plant.
Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN/Shutterstock

“Do you feel guilty?” the woman at a networking event asked me. “Guilty about what?” I replied. “What your company is doing to the environment,” she answered with exasperation. We were in New York City, and after the woman I was talking with had mentioned she worked in finance, I had replied that I worked in the chemical industry. That was enough to prompt her ire.

What about all the good things we’re doing? The chemical industry is spearheading the switch away from fossil fuels, it played a pivotal role in fighting COVID-19, and it ensures a constant viable food supply. The interaction was telling, and I had a major realization: the chemical industry has a massive marketing problem.

I’ve heard countless stories from individuals about the head-scratching responses they get after telling others that they work in the chemical industry. The general population has no idea how vital chemistry is to everyday life. Our industry remains largely hidden from the public, and most individuals don’t realize how often they are interacting with chemistry or the by-products of chemistry in their daily lives.

The public doesn’t know what the chemical industry’s purpose is.

Our industry is most known for unfortunate and heartbreaking crises, including plant explosions and events that contaminate common resources. The public doesn’t know what the chemical industry’s purpose is, and worse, they believe it only detracts from society. But the work our industry does is important to the future of humankind. This fundamental information asymmetry between the chemical industry’s positive impact on our world and the public’s lack of awareness continues to hurt our industry.

Today, the public continues to view the chemical industry as a net negative for society. That negative perception hinders the industry’s progress in countless ways, including inferior investment from capital markets and oppressive regulation. That negative perception also hurts the chemical industry’s capacity to attract talent. As our industry tackles existential threats of the future, including food and water scarcity, climate change, and future pandemics, it is imperative that we are attracting the brightest minds.

In academia, opportunities in the commercial chemical industry are also not made visible to students. At Women in Chemicals, the nonprofit I cofounded, women echo this sentiment on our podcast, Woman of the Week. The overwhelming majority of women we interview say they stumbled into the industry unintentionally, and we seldom hear that a woman sought out our industry for career opportunities. This is a huge disadvantage for our talent pool.

I also found my way to industry by chance. My undergraduate degree was in chemistry, with a minor in business. That sounds like a pretty ideal candidate for the chemical industry, but industry wasn’t on my radar. While applying to jobs in finance, technology, and consulting on my college’s career center website, I also applied to a logistics job. I didn’t get it, but a leader in the organization saw my technical background and offered me a sales job. I took the role because I wanted to put my job search behind me and get back to enjoying my senior year of college.

We need to better tell our story, share our wins, and market ourselves to the next generation as an industry of choice for employment.

Thankfully, I’ve become a more critical decision-maker since then, but sadly, our industry has not become any more visible to potential talent. If a chemistry major is not aware of careers in the chemical industry, how do we expect to find the talent we need to run the many functions of our businesses?

Fortifying our industry for future success means we need to address this visibility problem for the next generation of talent as they make their way into the workforce. To play our part in tackling this, Women in Chemicals is making the industry more visible to students in their formative years. We partner with organizations like the Chemical Educational Foundation (CEF) to introduce chemistry to students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and our Careers in Chemicals program introduces high school and college students to the chemical industry and all the potential career paths available. We have plans for a college recruiting initiative as well.

While this is a start, it is not enough. Our industry needs to take a coordinated and collaborative approach to our marketing problem. We need to take an active role in debunking the public’s negative perception of the industry at large and showing its value to society. We need to better tell our story, share our wins, and market ourselves to the next generation as an industry of choice for employment.

Amelia Greene
Credit: Amelia Greene

Amelia Greene is global product manager at Wego Chemical Group and a cofounder of Women in Chemicals, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission to empower women in the chemical industry.

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