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April 16, 2001
Volume 79, Number 16
CENEAR 79 16 pp.63-66
ISSN 0009-2347
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Despite consolidation, this diverse industry is still hiring chemists, chemical engineers


The word from Cincinnati is not good these days. Not only is Procter & Gamble not hiring, it's laying off 9,600 people. And that's on top of a 7,800-employee cut announced in 1999. These cuts are emblematic of the home care and personal care business as a whole, where several companies are saddled with less-than-desirable earnings and are under pressure to control costs.

CONCOCTING Chemists work on new personal care formulations in International Specialty Products' laboratories in Wayne, N.J.
"One year ago, the candidate held all the cards, and now a lot of people are looking for positions," says Paul Wallace, senior director of hair and skin care R&D at personal care products maker Clairol.

But for those interested in a career in the personal care industry, many companies--finished product manufacturers and raw material suppliers alike--are still looking for chemists and chemical engineers to help them develop new products and ingredients in skin care, hair care, oral care, and cosmetics.

Avon, for one, says it is continuing to grow in spite of the current environment. On the website for the New York chapter of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists, Avon has advertisements for development chemists, a senior skin care chemist, a program leader, technicians, and an infrared spectroscopist.

According to Mark Chandler, technical manager for health and personal care for the Americas at ICI's Uniqema unit, consolidation within the industry is influencing the employment picture. Some companies are shrinking, while others are growing, forcing workers to shift from employer to employer. "This type of activity is unprecedented," Chandler says. However, "most of those who get involved with the industry stay there--though they may change companies, going from a finished goods company to a raw material supplier, for instance."

P&G's woes notwithstanding, Chandler says it's a good time to go into the field; a year ago the industry concentrated on pharmacologists, but now it has shifted to hiring chemists and biologists. Uniqema will be hiring for its formulation laboratory in a couple of months.

Colleen Rocafort, director of North and Central American technical services for the personal care group at Ciba Specialty Chemicals, notes that Ciba is hiring applications chemists right now. It is looking for people with five to 10 years of experience, though at the technician level it is taking new graduates. For its technical service group, Ciba prefers a chemistry degree, with emphasis on analytical and synthetic specialties. Rocafort's group also hires process engineers--not necessarily chemical engineers--for its pilot plant.

In a technical service job at Ciba, a chemist would have a multifunctional role. Typically, chemist would perform tests to demonstrate for a customer how a Ciba product performs in the customer's base. In the marketing group, a chemist would show what Ciba products could do in a new market or application. And for the R&D group, a chemist would test new experimental molecules for specific end-use applications.

In the old way of doing business, Rocafort notes, instead of showing how prototypes fit in the market, an ingredients company would create a new product and tell the customer, "Here's something new; now tell us what it does." The new approach requires more communication skills and a sensitivity to customer needs, she says. The Society of Cosmetic Chemists has published a brochure, "Career Opportunities in Cosmetic Science," which Rocafort recommends for anyone interested in the cosmetics field.

Small companies may not be able to offer as much money as the larger firms, but they are in dire need of good people. Stephen K. Scher is president and chief executive officer of West Clifton, N.J.-based Scher Chemicals, a small manufacturer of raw materials for the cosmetics industry. "Skilled persons, especially in New Jersey, are as scarce as hen's teeth," Scher says. He has been unsuccessful in finding suitable candidates for positions that have been open for some time: He needs a chemical engineer, an organic synthesis chemist, and one or two quality control chemists.

 "IT'S IMPOSSIBLE to find skilled people--not just chemists but other technical positions, where a knowledgeable person with experience, or maybe even without a lot of experience, is being sought," he says. The problem, Scher states, is in finding a competent person when standard signifiers of expertise such as education, résumés, references, and interviews do not accurately gauge competence. Beyond this, there is a basic lack of "bodies to interview," he says.

Although it is a major challenge to find a candidate with the right credentials, Ciba's Rocafort notes that it's not always necessary to get 100% of what you are looking for. One individual can contribute a certain part of the expertise needed and then be cross-trained to learn the rest.

Scher claims that it can be "pretty discouraging" to look for potential employees with experience and a solid organic chemical background. He doesn't necessarily require a Ph.D., although "a Ph.D. will always be more of a door opener." While it is important to know organic chemistry, it helps to also be a "good cook"--to be able to put together formulations imaginatively in response to the needs of customers and the marketing department. It is also important to have careful laboratory practices.

UNLIKE SCHER, Clairol claims to have no problem finding qualified chemists, but it casts a wider net in its recruiting, with extensive college recruitment, headhunter use, and Internet searches. "There are many avenues to seek qualified candidates, but you have to work at it," Wallace says.

To get into the field of personal care product formulation, an ideal job candidate would have experience in color cosmetics, skin treatment, hair care, or some other niche. However, Scher says, few schools teach this. Although Scher has special needs for people with experience in specific areas, entry-level people are also welcome, provided that they have "a good, strong synthetic organic background."

The need for experienced formulators is echoed by Volker Schehlmann, manager of technical development at BASF. "There are not too many unemployed formulators, either chemists or chemical engineers," Schehlmann says. "It's still a market for people looking for new opportunities."

In March 2000, BASF dedicated a new technical service center in Ledgewood, N.J., to serve North American cosmetic producers. The facility consolidates BASF's technical support for cosmetic chemicals and incorporates an R&D effort in nutrition and pharmaceuticals. The center evaluates raw materials and finished products and provides practical experience for technical personnel in the formulation of personal care products.

At BASF Cosmetic Ingredients, jobs for chemists are mainly in formulation development and technical service. Chemists do joint development projects with BASF's customers and develop new raw materials for personal care formulations. BASF employs chemists at levels from technician through Ph.D., preferring people with a strong experience in personal care formulation and close contacts to the industry based on their professional experience.

Schehlmann tries to balance areas of expertise among the people in his department. For example, if he has one expert with a strong background in synthetic organic chemistry, for his next opening he will try to find a chemist strong in formulation. However, at the moment there are no openings in the technical side of BASF in the U.S.

In terms of personal qualities sought by BASF, the ability to be a team player is extremely important, Schehlmann says. In addition, communication skills are valuable, since there are so many contacts with sales personnel, transnational companies, and BASF subsidiaries all over the world.

"Communication is a critical success factor," Schehlmann claims, because of the need to network closely with other technical areas. Furthermore, strong technical skills are important, since it is necessary to understand in detail the technologies involved in BASF products in order to deal with customer questions.

Unlike BASF, Johnson & Johnson is hiring right now. It typically recruits research scientists, organic chemists, analytical chemists, validation chemists, polymer chemists, synthetic chemists, and quality assurance and R&D compliance specialists.

THE PERSONAL QUALITIES required depend on the position. "Experience and expertise in the area for which they are applying is usually required. Experience in patents and/or inventions is usually desired," comments Scott Woody, director of recruitment sourcing at J&J.

J&J prefers people with experience in synthesis, purification techniques, analytical methods, and wet chemistry methods. The company also looks for people with experience on cross-department teams and with computers. The ideal candidate would also have project management, consulting, and partnering skills.

International Specialty Products (ISP) is "hiring selectively, depending upon the skill set needed, but at a more modest pace than in the past," says Stephen D. Hinden, vice president of marketing and product development for personal care at ISP. "We are focusing on more efficient utilization of existing resources and have gained productivity by more closely aligning the business and technical resources--namely, marketing and R&D."

ISP places heavy emphasis on applications and technical service. "A lot of our work involves demonstrating the efficacy of our products and developing formulation prototypes," Hinden says. ISP also works with alliance partners, particularly Rohm and Haas, leveraging their R&D and manufacturing resources in polymer chemistry as it applies to hair care and skin care. For these reasons, it is important that scientists at ISP be able to work in a team environment, he adds.

Uniqema employs biochemists and formulation chemists--as well as specialists in colloid science and rheology--in its personal care group. On a separate track, it also hires chemical engineers and some chemists for its management program, Chandler says.

Uniqema maintains its synthesis activities in a separate, central group, rather than in the personal care group, so that the materials coming out of synthetic labs can be considered for the company's full range of business groups.

In its new hires, Uniqema looks for creativity, a capacity for communicating ideas, and a vision of what customers can do with Uniqema's technology. "Knowing synthetic chemistry is good, but the job is much more than technical nuts and bolts," Chandler says.

Ciba is looking for "a positive person" who works well in a group, says Rocafort. "We would take someone with slightly less experience who wants to learn," she stresses. Rocafort claims that it is key for the person to understand what the job entails and to really be interested in doing it. "We must set goals for people, including training," she says. "And the people need to want to get that training."

Having broad experience is always good; Rocafort recommends that a new graduate get a job at a private labeler or contract seller in order to learn about a wide range of products and activities.

In today's competitive environment, Rocafort says, employees must be team players who follow through with the decisions the team makes. It is important to involve all participants in the development process early and to keep everyone informed, so prospective employees must be good team players and communicators.

Wallace says Clairol is also emphasizing the importance of teamwork in its recruiting effort. The company is currently looking for four to five people in R&D and product development.

 A PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT position involves creating new products and technologies, testing these new products, and shepherding them through to manufacturing. For such a position, an employee needs good organizational and communication skills; he or she must be "able to work with and influence teams without having direct control over them," Wallace says. The key disciplines Clairol is seeking for this position include chemical engineering, general chemistry, and pharmacy.

Clairol's research arm hires physical scientists, physical chemists, and organic chemists, Wallace says; its process engineering group hires almost exclusively chemical engineers. With an M.B.A., a chemist in the product development or research groups can move into marketing, he adds.

Avon's R&D workforce is diverse, reflecting the different needs of the company, says Rob Kalafsky, director of global personal care R&D for Avon. Avon employs biologists, chemists, physicists, psychologists, and toxicologists, to name a few fields.

A newly hired formulation chemist typically has a B.S. in chemistry and practical experience working at other companies; alternatively, Avon might hire a bright young person out of school. Most of the people who come to work in R&D tend to stay there, rather than gravitating to other parts of the company, Kalafsky says.

Of the personal qualities demanded by Avon in its chemists, the most important is the capacity to innovate. The company is looking for bright, creative people with a strong technical background and formulation experience, according to Kalafsky.

There is a consensus as to what students need to do in order to get into the industry: Accept an intern position in the area in which they are interested in working. "This is a very good way to get in contact with the personal care industry," BASF's Schehlmann says.

Within three to four months, a student should be able to develop some idea of how the personal care industry operates, Clairol's Wallace adds. "I strongly encourage students to do this; it gives them a leg up on the job when they graduate."

Personal care companies have noted a tendency among job candidates to want to call their own shots; they have overly optimistic ideas about how much money they can earn and how fast they can move up in the company. "New kids want to come in and run the company," Avon's Kalafsky says. He urges students to be realistic while holding onto their aspirations.

 ALTHOUGH EXPERIENCE is a big plus in getting a position with the personal care industry, Wallace is a proponent of bringing people in right out of school. Not only does this help their careers, but it introduces an infectious excitement and vibrancy that communicates itself to other workers, he says.

J&J's Woody advises students to complete a degree in a curriculum that encompasses theory and hands-on lab experience. Clairol suggests that a candidate coming out of school should have a good conceptual understanding of the relevant sciences as well as strong mathematical, problem-solving, and computing skills.

In addition to graduates and those who already have experience in the personal care industry, J&J hires professionals who are switching from other industries. "Typically, the skill sets of professionals from the pharmaceutical, medical device, medical diagnostic, and consumer pharmaceutical industries are easily transferable," Woody says.

There are crossovers from formulation chemistry, pharmaceuticals, and food chemistry, Avon's Kalafsky says. Certain areas of experience--for instance, in making formulations or scaling up processes--transfer well to the personal care industry.

Whether or not a switch from another industry will work depends on the person's experience, Uniqema's Chandler says. Good matches have been made when the person has a background in dispersion and rheology, as in the paint industry, the crop protection industry, and the food industry.

One reason why experience is critical is that personal care formulation work is part science, part art. ISP's Hinden points out that ISP prefers to hire chemists with prior experience in the personal care industry over those from outside "since familiarity with the art of applying the diverse range of raw materials available to the formulator is essential to the successful development of end-use products." But "entry-level chemists can be mentored to acquire the necessary skills."

Although experience in the business confers advantages, Clairol's Wallace says it is sometimes more important that a mature professional trying to enter the personal care field have strong leadership skills and fit into the company culture. Wallace cites an example of a food scientist working with consumer products who was brought into Clairol's skin care research effort. This employee's skills appear to be transferring successfully, he says.

 AS WITH OTHER INDUSTRIES, the personal care industry is facing challenges that affect its demand for chemists and chemical engineers. For instance, consolidation is going on both within the personal care companies and within the companies that supply the industry.

The level of competition is extremely high, Kalafsky says. There is pressure to bring products to market more quickly, and the demographics of consumers have changed considerably.

Also, the industry must digest the innovations that are being developed. "The life cycle of formulations is relatively short, so there is pressure to come up with new technology," says Schehlmann at BASF. But this challenge is also rewarding: "I can see the formulation I contributed to on store shelves," he says.

Chemists and chemical engineers entering the personal care industry can derive a satisfaction that may be elusive for those in less visible parts of the chemical industry. "It's a fun place to be," Uniqema's Chandler says. He wholeheartedly recommends the area as a career because "the market for these products is always there."

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