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March 25, 2002
Volume 80, Number 12
CENEAR 80 12 pp. 55-56
ISSN 0009-2347
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Bright outlook, cutting-edge chemical research make energy field very attractive


Looking for a career that is fascinating and has an impact on billions of lives worldwide? Then maybe the energy industry is for you.


STATE OF THE ART Ngoc-Ha Nguyen, a researcher at Energy Conversion Devices' joint venture ChevronTexaco Ovonic Fuel Cell Co., works with a BET surface analyzer.

To some, the energy industry is synonymous with the oil industry. While that may have been true 20 years ago, the industry now includes a growing presence of alternative energies.

"Today, the majority of the easy oil is gone," states David Horsup, research team leader at Ondeo Nalco Energy Services, a core division of Ondeo Nalco that supplies treatment programs, services, and systems to petroleum and petrochemical industries. "Now the industry is moving to extraction of oil from more challenging and remote locations such as deep-sea sites."

According to Horsup, the shift to deep-sea production is driving the industry toward the development of technology for the subsea processing of fluids--that is, separating gas, water, and crude oil on the sea- floor rather than bringing it all to the surface to separate. This would obviate the need for oil platforms and floating production, storage, and off-loading vessels.

There is also an emphasis in the energy community on being kinder to the environment. Infineum USA, a developer, manufacturer, and marketer of lubricant and fuel additives, is actively trying to improve exhaust emissions by removing phosphorus from oil formation, says Anthony Rodriguez, human resources recruiting coordinator for Infineum.

Elsewhere, BP has established a Clean Fuels, Clean Cities project. Steve Wittrig, director of advanced energy technologies at BP, explains that this program--in place in more than 100 cities around the world--is working to accelerate the introduction of clean fuels that address specific local opportunities to reduce air pollution. This is just one of the initiatives BP is undertaking to help improve the environment.

BUT IT'S THE DRIVE to obtain economically viable energy alternatives that really garners excitement. Energy Conversion Devices (ECD) President and Chief Executive Officer Stanford R. Ovshinsky believes that hydrogen-based energy is an interesting prospect (C&EN, Oct. 22, 2001, page 22). "It's not something we have to wait 50 years to have; it's something that can be produced right now as needed," Ovshinsky says with enthusiasm.

Ovshinsky believes that working on alternative energy to solve environmental problems as well as to reduce dependence on fossil fuels is "a very noble pursuit that is capable of changing the world."

Both chemists and chemical engineers are in demand throughout the industry. Typically, chemists with backgrounds in analytical, inorganic, organic, organometallic, physical, and process chemistry, as well as chemical engineers of all specialties, are marketable. Experience in the field also helps, but it is not a necessity.

"It's difficult to find people who have the right amount of experience in the appropriate discipline we are interested in," Horsup explains. Instead, "we tend to bring in recent B.S. and Ph.D. graduates with a few years of experience and provide an extensive amount of technical training on the job," he says.

Working on alternative energy is "a very noble pursuit that is capable of changing the world."

At BP, chemists and chemical engineers are brought in at the B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. levels to fill traditional types of jobs such as research and development in process design and process development. According to Wittrig, after building up their experience over a number of years, employees can move toward the more cutting-edge research positions--in areas such as the hydrogen economy or renewable energy--through the company's career development pathways.

"ECD is not bound by man-made disciplines," Ovshinsky says. "We are interested in anyone who has a chemical background. We don't pigeonhole people into chemistry or chemical engineering--or physics, for that matter. Here, you work across disciplines.

"We supply photovoltaics and fuel cells for energy generation, batteries and hydride materials for hydrogen storage, and the production of hydrogen using photovoltaics to break up water," Ovshinsky explains. ECD also does its manufacturing in-house directed by its machine division, which, he notes, is run by a Ph.D. chemist.

Ovshinsky says that when new chemists or chemical engineers are hired, they have to learn physics and materials science and vice versa. He sees this as the best way to "bring out the talents inherent in our people." This also creates a unique working climate in which he says his staff is thriving.

Everyone seems to be looking for new hires with the ability to work on a team. But Ondeo Nalco is looking for "not just a team player, but someone who can run his own show," Horsup says. He adds that, because people in this sector of the industry spend a significant amount of their time interacting with customers, "interpersonal skills can be just as important as technical skills in this area."

Another key characteristic that companies are looking for is the ability to be flexible, or as BP's Wittrig puts it, "a high tolerance for ambiguity." In most cases, a person's job focus will change many times throughout his or her career. "You can't predict what you'll be working on next," he says.

Education, education, education is the key for Ovshinsky. While he looks for people who are bright-eyed and intelligent, "people must really be able to continue to learn throughout their careers. It's a never-ending process," he notes.

WITH ALL THIS in mind, how does one go about finding information about specific career opportunities in the energy industry? A company's website is often a good starting point. While some of the larger companies provide helpful information about careers throughout their organizations, some have specific sites dedicated to opportunities in the energy industry. In any case, job seekers can find useful information that will help them to determine if a given opening is a good fit for them.

Dow Chemical's career website at http://www.dow.com/careers is an example of a site that contains career opportunity information for a company's entire operation. It contains a link to a listing of opportunities by discipline/degree, which can be used to track down positions related to the energy industry.

Just last month, ExxonMobil launched its new interactive website at http://www.exxonmobil.com/scitech, which includes an overview of the science and technology underpinning the company's global energy business. This site provides job seekers with access to in-depth profiles of a selected group of current employees and allows them to link their academic degrees with technology opportunities throughout the energy sector of the company.

As for the outlook for employment opportunities in the energy industry, most agree it is a stable one. Unlike the economic roller coaster of oil prices, demand is steady for chemists and chemical engineers at all of the companies surveyed by C&EN for this article.

In the more traditional oil industry, Barry Wood, Northeast public affairs manager for ExxonMobil, explains that opportunities are still plentiful. Wood, who works in the downstream, or refining and marketing, part of the industry, says ExxonMobil "offers challenging and long career paths for those people who are high performers."

In the upstream part of the oil industry--which involves searching for, finding, and transporting oil--Bob Davis, a spokesman also for ExxonMobil, says most new hires come in with a technical background. This part of the oil industry lends itself more to chemical engineers than to chemists, he adds, although there are jobs for both.

The energy industry is one "that everyone can relate to," Horsup says. "Everyone uses products derived in one form or another from petroleum, such as gas for fuel or cellophane to wrap a candy bar."


COMPOSITION Researchers at Ondeo Nalco Energy Services study the stability of asphaltenes present in crude oil.

Horsup notes that Ondeo Nalco is buffered from being directly affected by oil price fluctuations. "Because of the extensive on-the-job training that is needed, we can't afford to release talent" when the market takes a downturn, he explains. Instead, he continues, "Ondeo Nalco has an advantage in that it is not exclusively focused on the upstream business, so when a dip in the economy occurs, we can shift people into other areas of the business until it picks up again."

Wittrig agrees with that sentiment, noting that "the entrance to the pipeline may go up or down depending on the economy, but once you are in the pipeline, jobs are relatively stable."

BP is currently more heavily focused on hiring those with chemical engineering backgrounds than those with chemistry ones, Wittrig notes. He attributes this to a function of consolidation, which resulted in a greater need for chemical engineers.

Expansion is on the table for Ovshinsky. "We are building a new industry rather than joining a cyclical one," he tells C&EN. This fact not only provides job security, but it also provides educational opportunities, he says.

"As the new science develops, it begins to feed back into the schools," Ovshinsky says. The feedback mechanism provides a natural recruiting drive for ECD in that "teachers are interested in the new science and want to send their best students into the field."

For most other companies, campus recruiting was cited as one of the most effective ways to find new hires. Most have well-established relationships with a set of colleges and universities and participate in their annual recruitment fairs.

Another important source of new hires, particularly for chemical engineers, is cooperative intern programs.

Infineum's Rodriguez says that for engineering students "a key factor to successfully entering this industry is to gain experience as a college intern, either through a formal co-op education program or through summer internship assignment." He notes that in lieu of cooperative experience, chemists typically come in with a Ph.D. or advanced degree and relevant experience in specialty chemicals.

Networking was universally cited as a way for job seekers to hook up with job opportunities. Other methods include advertisements in trade magazines, such as Chemical & Engineering News, and journals; American Chemical Society national meeting recruiting fairs; and postings on Internet job boards.

"This field is for those who understand that life is a struggle and that there are real problems," Ovshinsky says. "It takes a person who wants to use his or her life for something more important than just a job--but rather for something that will bring out the best of him or her and yet serve society at the same time."

Ovshinsky's view may be idealistic, but isn't that a calling we would all be interested in answering?

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