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Unemployment among Chem Engrs

  • 1.  Unemployment among Chem Engrs

    Posted 03-12-2018 17:16
    I am dismayed by the large number of our members who have been laid off by their former employers (mostly EPC companies) and have have had incredible difficulty finding a job despite being actively seeking one for as long as 2 years.  I suspect that after 2 years of frustration, most of them give up and change professions out of financial necessity.

    Now these people are not incompetents or rogues.  Most of them have valuable and relevant skills.  They are just the victims of management policies that treat human beings as interchangeable commodities.  The South Texas Section is attempting to alleviate this problem among our fellow professionals by arranging networking luncheons twice a month where members can exchange information that would be helpful to one another.

    What I fail to understand is how the Chem industry could be in seemingly permanent doldrums when the economy is creating new jobs at a record pace, and unemployment rates are at historic lows (according to the government claims at least).  Are we creating only menial jobs?

    Any one have an explanation or practical solutions?

    J Kumana
    CEO, Kumana & Associates
    Missouri City (Houston), Tx

  • 2.  RE: Unemployment among Chem Engrs

    Posted 03-13-2018 00:28
    Many of these unemployed engineers are well experienced and many are locked into living where they are.  You have to make trades with your life.  Sometimes the best trade is to stay in same location and accept a job that you may be overqualified for.  There are jobs out there, but you have to be willing to relocate and maybe accept a lower ranking job than you previously had.  I'm currently retired and I have head hunters hitting me up about jobs all the time.  Even if I was not retired I would probably not take the job because of the location.  I was caught up in a corporate takeover and decided to take a package out when I was 60.  Age discrimination is real and I finally took a job that answered my needs for 6 years until I fully retired, but I had to relocate.  Main thing is to be open minded about where you are willing to live and work with some good head hunters.  One thing that convinced me to relocate is that my previous location (Houston area) is great to be a chemical engineer, but during a down period available chemical engineers are everywhere so your competition is very strong.

    George Gaskill
    Murfreesboro TN

  • 3.  RE: Unemployment among Chem Engrs

    Posted 03-13-2018 03:41

    As a recently employed Chem Engineer myself who has now changed industries from a lack of jobs, I believe there are a few factors at play here:

    - All chemical engineering plants in the western world (USA, Aus/Nz, Canada, UK) are at the end of the maintainable life (40+ yrs old) and are too expensive and hazardous to replace
    - Oversupply of graduates
    - Outsourcing of manufacturing to Asia
    - Computers (for calculations and process monitoring) and instantaneous communication reducing the need for a chem eng 'expert' to be present at every site
    - The $$ saving work chem engers do (yield optimisation) is a tiny factor now compared to maintenance, salaries and safety related costs, so their skill set is not required to improve a company's bottom line
    - There are no new chemical product discoveries (all possible combinatation of chemicals have all been discovered and the processes to make them have all been optimised) (note this does not count bio-processing)
    - The world has moved on from optimising physical processes (this is now complete) and is moving towards optimising information processes, there is more $$$ to be made in supply chain optimisation, M&A and procurement than playing around with distillation tray temperatures and reactor pressures

    Please let me know your thoughts,

    Mitchell Smith CEng

  • 4.  RE: Unemployment among Chem Engrs

    Posted 03-14-2018 16:06
    Hmm, lots of discouraging comments about chemical engineering employment.  However, there are booming industries that (will) need us.  I would focus my job search on these areas:

    Lithium Brine Extraction and Processing;
    Shale Fracking Chemicals;
    Biotech Pharma;
    Anything Bio;
    Silicon -- Solar Panels;
    Clean Coal - Carbon Capture and Sequestration;
    Natural Gas.

    The Wall Street Journal, Barrons, Wired, Fortune and of course ChE Progress do a great job of predicting where the future action is and often point directly to companies on the cutting edge.

    Hang in there!

    William Stuble PE
    Cora WY

  • 5.  RE: Unemployment among Chem Engrs

    Posted 03-13-2018 08:28

    I would hazard a guess that most of the unemployed chemical engineers are over the age of 50 – and are at the top of their game and top of their salary range.  Every company wants an experienced worker, but is unwilling to pay for it.  Therefore, they hire engineers with 5-10 years of experience – just enough to know a few things, but not enough to command a high salary.  What these companies fail to realize is that the older workers are worth the extra money.


    We will soon get to a point where employers are going to have to change their hiring criteria.  There aren't enough junior workers to fill all the jobs, so they will have to reach out to more seasoned engineers.  At this point, they will have to pay for that experience; however, by the time this happens, I suspect most of them will have retired to somewhere warm and sunny and won't consider going back to work for any company that mistreated them all these years.  And the company will suffer and the economy will suffer.


    Not sure there is a solution in there, but maybe a realization among company managers that engineers are worth the extra money.  I continually fail to understand why people in management and finance command salaries significantly higher than engineers.  Perhaps we don't do enough of a job tooting our own horn and letting people know how valuable we really are.




    Sue Schultz

    Senior Project Manager



    Global Supply Chain

    587 Old Baltimore Pike, Newark, DE 19702

    Tel 302-286-3463



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  • 6.  RE: Unemployment among Chem Engrs

    Posted 03-13-2018 10:42
    I would add to what others have highlighted by pointing out that the "labor intensity" (the person per dollar of product) has been declining in manufacturing as a whole, and specifically in the CPI. This type of productivity gain can cause confusion between "this industry is growing" and "there are no jobs"; the hiring does not keep pace with the output or capacity.

    Secondly, I would suggest that perhaps there has been a failure to connect "what a chemical engineer does" with the evolving modern economy. I find the "smiling curve" illustrative for this issue. I believe you might find that expertise for high-level design, conceptualization, or optimization would now fall under a company in the services sector that is contracted to the CPI, rather than in-house in many cases, and could give the illusion of missing jobs when they have simply move outward (if you will) on the smile. To your question about the quality of these jobs, the smile says they are probably actually "better" jobs.

    Also, contract companies take advantage of not needing to be colocated with production. In other words, perhaps there are fewer jobs in Texas because some functions are now contracted and can be done with remote working and occasional visits, and the contracted companies have chosen to locate on the West Coast to enhance hiring from a different talent pool, to offer more desirable places to live, and to also have closer proximity to international customer (yet another issue at play here). As others have mentioned, if I were an unemployed ChemE I would certainly be keeping an open mind to what and where I was working given the evolving nature of CPIs and the economy as a whole. Just my two cents.

    Elizabeth Sendich
    Industrial Sector Analyst
    U.S. Energy Information Administration

  • 7.  RE: Unemployment among Chem Engrs

    Posted 03-13-2018 12:06
    Thanks to those of you who have proposed explanations for the difficulty that chem engrs are having in finding suitable jobs.  I agree with most of what you all have said, but beg to disagree on the following points:

    1)  Although many of the unemployed are indeed over 50, and some are locked into staying put geographically due to family circumstances (kids song well in school, aging parents to care for, etc), about 50% are people under 50, and willing to relocate.  The reason most of them got laid off is due to the lack of sufficient business among the design engineering companies, which is due to the operating companies not building new plants in the USA or significantly revamping existing ones.

    2)  Existing process plants have NOT been fully optimized.  Yes, there may be less potential for yield improvement than there used to be (that is progress, after all), but there are still significant cost reduction possibilities through better process integration - optimized heat recovery, optimized separation sequences for distillation, distributed water treatment with strategic reuse/recycle (instead of end-of-pipe effluent treatment after mixing/dilution), matching energy utilities supply system (boilers, fired heaters) to the process needs, minimizing process variability, optimal asset deployment (when the degrees of freedom are available), use of variable frequency drives,  etc.  The operating companies are missing these opportunities to improve their competitiveness because they have let go the very people who could have helped them maintain/restore efficiency.  My observation is that the senior managements in operating companies have taken to demanding impossibly high rates of return (typically 30-50%/yr, equivalent to 2-3 year payback) on retrofit projects, and then using the dearth of such projects as an excuse to divert record company profits to expenses other than plant improvement.  Can we expect to get 2-3 year payback in our retirement funds on Wall Street?

    3)  Perhaps we should seriously consider mechanisms to balance the supply of ChE graduates with the needs of the industry - as the lawyers, doctors, and accounting professions do.

    The fact is that the after-tax purchasing power of Chem Eng salaries has declined substantially since the early 1970s.  The younger generations of ChEs are doing less well in their careers than the baby-boom generation.  Switching careers by getting into real estate or insurance sales or the fast-food restaurant business  is NOT a solution - because it means leaving the profession.  Why would be want to waste so much hard won experience and talent ?  I am just putting out these thoughts for the community to mull over in the hope that collectively we may be able to change things for the better.

    J Kumana
    CEO, Kumana & Associates
    Missouri City (Houston), Tx

  • 8.  RE: Unemployment among Chem Engrs

    Posted 03-14-2018 01:34

    While I liked many of the answers given by the others so far, I strongly disagree with your point #3 and your conclusion.

    Moors law applies to our industry the same way it applies to the electronics industry.

    Just as the prices of computer memory drops with time, so does the value of some tasks a chemical engineer used to do.

    If you define a chemical engineer as so someone who does these 'old tasks', then yes Chemical Engineers salaries will always be going down.

    However, if you define a Chemical Engineer as someone who: "applies the principles of chemistry, biology, physics, and math to solve problems that involve the production or use of chemicals, fuel, drugs, food, and many other products." Then Chemical Engineers are needed more than ever before.

    With 7 billion people on the planet, we need to get the most out of our efforts making and using chemicals, fuel, drugs, and food. The demand and need are higher than ever before.

    Bright ambitious people have always been attracted to our profession.  Limiting who can join us would be a huge mistake.

    We have a global economy today.  That means the whole world is potentially your client.  It also means that whole world is free to come up with a better solution than the one in place.  A colleague I know offers ways of optimizing chemical operations, not for a salary, but for a percentage of the cost savings.  If you are just selling your labor, you are competing with other laborers and your wages will continue to go down.  If you are on top solving problems, you are still a Chemical Engineer and should not worry about the number of new people coming into our profession.     

    Mark DeLuca
    Levittown PA

  • 9.  RE: Unemployment among Chem Engrs

    Posted 03-13-2018 12:31

    Thank you for raising the issue of unemployment among chemical engineers.  I see both ends of the age spectrum are facing difficult times.  Others have well covered here the issues affecting job opportunities.  I am currently trying to help a few students who are not getting much response in the application mill.  I have been semi retired since 2004 so my connection to the hiring process is out of date.  What is clear is the national job postings are not productive.  Former students make hundreds of applications via online responses to job postings and get zero response let alone an interview.  This is effectively a scam.  Why do companies put up these postings if they have no intention to respond?  They are wasting applicants time and fostering false hopes.  What can get interviews are connections to people close to the hiring process.  I happened to know someone at a bio tech company who lives nearby and through this person I was able to get a former student an interview.  That was about a month ago with no follow up and prompts from the applicant are not answered.  Pizza delivery is paying the bills.  It is disingenuous for academic institutions to grow enrollments in programs to the point where the few super star 4.0 graduates get plum jobs and the rest of the students have to scramble for months even years to find a position that may not even utilize their skill set.  This seems to be true across the board that our institutions of higher learning produce an excess of graduates in most if  not all majors and thus many graduates end up under employed.  The Chem Eng program where I teach part time had about 30 seniors in 2007 when I started and now we have about 75 in 2018.  I think the word is out that jobs are lacking and enrollment is dropping back down.

    On the older side of the age curve, I talked to one of my friends who is in his early 60's and facing a closure or resizing of the start up company he works for.  Unlike the young students who get no response from their many job applications he is getting the "how dare you apply in your 60's" treatment!  Another friend and former colleague who is probably in his late 40's was working at the Research Triangle in NC when I contacted him to see if he could help my former student make contacts in his job search.  My friend said he would like to help, but he was fully engaged looking for another job as his current position was ending!  Some former students are stuck in technician level jobs even several years after graduation.  Our profession is going to have to face the changes in the skill sets needed in industry.  More and more academia is going to dry labs and videos for teaching in what used to be real hands on wet lab experience.  Reliance on digitally modelled reality is the relentless technology revolution.  The value of empirical validation is in danger of being hand waved into the dust bin.  Students are hungry for the taste of hands on reality from my experience that I relate in the process development class I teach as their academic instructors have no way to provide this. We will find reality swimming around in the digital "cloud" before long.

    John Rudesill
    Columbia MD

  • 10.  RE: Unemployment among Chem Engrs

    Posted 03-14-2018 08:14
    ​John, you are correct regarding on-line applications.  When the option to go on-line happened, employers could send to the world for no additional cost, and from what I hear in talking to employers/recruiters, everyone does, so it becomes a near impossible task to respond.

    We also need to stop spouting off about the shortage of STEM degrees.  There really hasn't been a shortage, probably ever.  There are years (it's cyclic) where there is a shortage of new ChE grads.  Growing ChE departments is a huge mistake, and a waste of resources.  My alma mater took the position, for decades, that they would not graduate more than 30, no matter what, and if it took making the courses harder to induce students to change majors, they did.  it was a top 25 program then.  Now they take all comers, and it's an also-ran.  If anyone insists that there is a shortage of ChEs or a shortage of STEM grads in general, then why have salaries not increased?

    I have a small hobby of placing people, often new grads, and use my network.  I have a difficult time getting new grads to be open to taking a job with a major company in an out-of-the way plant location in order to get experience and build a reputation.  Way too many only want to go to a big city or a college town, and not "pay dues".  too many also don't have any prior work experience, or don't recognize the value in including such on their application or resume.  That, BTW, has been a problem for decades, even with some of my classmates.

    I was laid off of a job I loved about 2 1/2 years ago, in my late 50s.  I had 2 offers within 3 weeks, and 4, 2 weeks later.  I didn't hide the fact that I graduated in '79, and that I have white hair.  I have always been willing to relocate, change industries and technologies, and roles.  Two keys were my incredible network of friends (e-mail has made that so easy to nurture!), and my volunteer work (adds to the network).  I have known many engineers, excellent at what they did, but unwilling to consider that they might be able to change industries or roles - they were convinced that it wasn't possible, so they sat unemployed, sometimes for years, and then had to settle for contract work or part time.  And huge numbers do not have a good (or even any) resume - they had never needed one, and even with coaching were convinced that they couldn't prepare one worth submitting.

    Bruce Bullough
    Portage, MI

  • 11.  RE: Unemployment among Chem Engrs

    Posted 03-13-2018 12:12
    The most practical solution is to stop encouraging high school graduates to study Chemical Engineering. Admittedly this might throw some university professors out of work, a small price to pay.

    Zalman "Solly" Zitron
    Denver, Colorado

  • 12.  RE: Unemployment among Chem Engrs

    Posted 03-14-2018 08:07
    Many employers, both engineering firms and operating companies, have been hiring independent contractors to fill vacancies.  Unemployed engineers taking this route I believe will avoid the age bias they may run into when trying to land a permanent position. Working as an independent contractor may not give one job security but there's little of that these days anyway.  And you can always continue your search for a permanent position while working as an independent.