Chemical & Engineering News

July 28, 1997

Copyright © 1997 by the American Chemical Society

With overall unemployment in the U.S. at its lowest level since 1973, job status and salaries of chemists improve considerably after several rough years

Michael Heylin
C&EN Washington

Chemists with full-time jobs responding to this year's American Chemical Society annual survey of the salaries and employment status of its members were earning a median base salary of $63,000 as of March 1. For those with bachelor's degrees the median was $49,400; for those with master's degrees, $56,200; and for Ph.D.s, $71,000.

The survey indicates that individual chemists employed full time in March received a median salary increase of 5% during the previous year. This compares with a 2.8% increase in the Consumer Price Index.

Of all chemists in the workforce responding to this year's survey, 93.5% had a full-time job, 2.1% were employed part time, 2.3% were on postdocs or fellowships, and 2.0% were unemployed but looking for work.

All of these data--on both employment and salaries--show substantial improvement over returns from the two previous surveys.

It is now apparent that 1995 and 1996 were the nadir of a downturn in the employment situation for chemists that started in 1991. However, it is also evident that the chemical community still has quite a way to go before it recovers to the more healthy employment situation that last prevailed from 1987 to 1990 when the unemployment rate for chemists responding to ACS surveys hovered at the 1.0% level. Yet a recovery is now under way, something that last year seemed unlikely any time soon.

a As of March 1 each year. Based on population that excludes those unemployed but not seeking employment. Source: ACS survey

This improved job situation for the chemical workforce parallels both a stronger job market for new chemistry graduates (C&EN, June 9, page 10) and the continuing strength of the U.S. economy in general. For March, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data indicate that civilian unemployment was at 5.2%, down from 5.5% a year earlier. It has since dropped to 4.8%, the lowest it has been in almost 25 years.


The rate of unemployment among ACS members who are chemists, as measured by the annual surveys, is always well below the BLS unemployment rate for the overall civilian workforce. Since it was first measured 25 years ago, the unemployment rate for chemists has varied between 0.9% and 3.2%. The ACS surveys may well underestimate the actual level of unemployment for the entire chemistry community. This is partially due to the likelihood that unemployed ACS members are somewhat less likely to respond to the surveys than are employed members. It is also possible that unemployed chemists are less likely to be ACS members.

However, unemployment rates for ACS members determined annually (even if they are low in absolute terms) remain a useful and sensitive indicator of the overall status of--and year-to-year shifts in--the job market for the chemical profession. An ACS measure of unemployment of 1% indicates essentially full employment for chemists. A seemingly still modest measure of 3% unemployment, however, signals a very unsatisfactory job market.


The survey

As is the case most years, the 1997 survey involved mailing a four-page questionnaire to a random sample of 20,000 full and associate members of ACS who reside in the U.S., are less than 70 years old, and are not classified by ACS as emeritus, retired, or student members. About every fifth year, the questionnaire is sent to the entire target population of more than 90,000 members. This was last done for the 1995 survey.

The total usable survey response was about 10,600. This number includes almost 9,800 chemists and about 550 chemical engineers. The data and analysis in this article are based on the returns from chemists only.

Of all chemists responding, 3.1% were unemployed but not seeking employment. As these members are not in the workforce, they are excluded from the analysis of the employment situation.

In all, about 9,400 chemists active in the workforce supplied data to this year's survey. Based on their current or last job, 6l.6% are in industry, 26.4% work in colleges and universities, 7.0% have government jobs, and 5.0% hold other nonacademic positions. By highest degree, 60.0% are Ph.D.s, 17.4% masters, 22.2% bachelors, and 0.4% hold other degrees. By race and ethnicity, 20.9% identify themselves as a minority. By gender, 21.9% are women.

a Unemployed, but seeking employment, as of March 1 each year. Based on population that excludes those unemployed but not seeking employment. Source: ACS survey

The median age of chemists in the workforce responding was 44. Those in industry were younger (42) than those in government service (47) and academia (49). Women (39) were considerably younger than men (45). And the median age for bachelor's degree chemists (39) was seven years lower than for Ph.D.s.

These breakdowns generally parallel the demographics of ACS membership. The one exception is the disproportionately high response from Ph.D.s. This happens every year. This year, Ph.D.s--who make up 47.5% of the membership--provided 60.0% of the survey responses. Bachelor's degree holders, 35.1% of the membership, were underrepresented with 22.2% of the responses.

ACS's annual salary and employment surveys are conducted by the society's Department of Career Services under the general direction of the Committee on Economic & Professional Affairs. A full report, "Salaries 1997," will be available in August at $150 per copy from American Chemical Society, Member Service Center, P.O. Box 9389, Minneapolis, Minn. 55440-9389; phone (800) 451-9190. Questions on the survey data should be directed to senior research analyst Mary W. Jordan, who conducted this year's survey; phone (202) 872-4433.


ACS surveys ask respondents for their base salary from their principal full-time job. Bonuses and other additional professional income, such as from consulting, are reported and analyzed separately. Because averages can be distorted by a relatively few very high salaries, medians are used. The median salary is that which is equaled or exceeded by that of one-half of a sample.

The median salaries from last year's survey were puzzling and sobering. For instance, the overall median for all respondents in 1996 was $60,000. This was less than 1% higher than the 1995 median. And the revised 1996 median of $45,000 for bachelor's degree chemists (changed from $44,100) was down $400, or 1%, from the $45,400 of the previous year. Such a significant year-to-year decline was unprecedented in the history of ACS salary surveys.

These unusual 1996 results were at least partly due to computer-related problems with drawing last year's sample of the membership. As a result, salary data from this year's survey show some discontinuities from last year. But this year's results are reasonably consistent with data from 1995, when there was no difficulty with the sample since the survey questionnaire was sent to the entire eligible ACS member population.

For instance, this year's median salary for bachelor's degree chemists is $49,400. This is an unbelievable 10% higher than the revised median from the 1996 survey. However, this year's median is a more believable 8.8% higher than the median for 1995, for an average increase of 4.3% for each of the two years.

This year's $63,000 median for all respondents at all degree levels represents an average annual gain of almost 3% for the past two years. This compares with the apparent gain of less than 1% posted in 1996, according to last year's survey.

The case is similar with the $56,200 median salary for master's degree chemists this year. This represents a $2,700 gain over 1995. This compares with an apparent gain of only $100 in 1996.

For Ph.D.s, the median salaries from all three surveys seem to be consistent from year to year--$66,000 in 1995, $68,000 in 1996, and $71,000 this year.


Note: Median base annual salary in thousands of dollars for chemists employed full time as of March 1, 1997. Source: ACS survey

The true meaning of salary increases calculated as the differences between the salary medians from successive annual surveys is never easy to interpret. Even when there are no uncertainties about sampling, the apparent year-to-year salary gains obtained this way are for chemists as a group. They predominantly measure the rising inflationary tide that lifts salaries in general. And the differences between the salary medians from successive surveys are also vulnerable to even quite small shifts in the demographics of survey respondents from year to year--such as age or average level of qualifications.



A more reliable estimate of the salary gains for individual chemists working full time comes from the survey question that asks salary as of both March 1 the current year and March 1 the previous year. This gives the actual salary gains posted by one set of chemists. Because such gains are determined from the responses to a single survey, they avoid the vagaries of comparing results from different surveys--with different samples--taken one year apart. The median of such gains reflects not only the inflationary increase but also gains due to greater experience, greater responsibilities, and promotions.

By this measure, annual salary gains this year showed essentially no change from last year. For instance, for industrially employed chemists this year, salary gains were 4.9% for bachelors, 4.7% for masters, and 4.8% for Ph.D.s. For last year's survey these gains were 5.0%, 4.4%, and 4.7%, respectively. Similarly, for all chemists age 40 to 49, the salary increases by degree level ranged between 4.3% and 4.5% this year. This compares very closely with the range of 4.2% to 4.4% last year.

As with all ACS salary surveys, this year's version confirms that the dominant determinants of chemists' compensation remain their formal education, how long they have been working, what they are doing, and who they are doing it for. Gender is still a factor, especially for those in the higher age brackets. Of least significance is geographic location.


The median salary of $82,000 for Ph.D. chemists 30 to 34 years beyond their bachelor's degrees is 34% higher than the $61,000 median for Ph.D.s 20 years younger. The parallel salary increment for both masters and bachelors with the additional 20 years of service is 32%. Analysis by degree indicates that for all age groups Ph.D. chemists earn about 25% more than their bachelor's degree colleagues.

The salary pattern by employer remains unchanged this year with industry paying the best, government second, and academia lagging somewhat except for full professors.

The breakdown by gender shows that Ph.D. women chemists in industry under about age 45 are, as a group, close to holding their own in terms of salaries compared with men. Beyond that age, the salaries of the small number of women chemists lag substantially. Only 5% of Ph.D. industrial chemists who are more than 30 years beyond their bachelor's degrees are women. This should change. A similar pattern persists in academia, with relatively few women in the senior, better paying positions.

Also, women bachelor's degree chemists in industry are still at a clear salary disadvantage. For instance, the median salary for those 20 to 24 years beyond their degrees is only 87% that of their male colleagues in the same age bracket.

Bonuses and consulting

Of all respondents answering the question about bonuses, 40% indicated they received one. Bonuses are far more frequent among chemists in industry (56%) than in government (22%) or academia (6%). The median for the industrial chemists who received them was $5,000.

The situation is somewhat the reverse for consulting income. Almost 31% of academics indicate they earn such income in addition to their primary salaries. This compares with only 5% of industrial chemists and 7% of government chemists. The median for those involved is $2,400.

Median salaries for chemists as a group post solid gains for all degree levels

Note: Median base annual salary for chemists employed full time as of March 1 each year. Source: ACS survey



ACS's surveys since 1991 have indicated an alarming trend in the number of society members without full-time jobs. A total of 5.8% of chemists responding to the 1990 survey were in this category. This was consistent with results for other good years for the profession. By 1996, this total had more than doubled to an unprecedented 12.1%, or almost one in eight. For women chemists, it was more than one in six, 17.7%.

Over these six years, the number of respondents employed part time grew from 1.4% to 2.7% and the number on postdocs or fellowships moved up from 2.2% to 2.8% with a peak of 3.6% in 1995. The gain in those unemployed but seeking employment was from 1.1% to 3.0%. The biggest gain, from 1.1% to 3.4%, was for those unemployed but not seeking employment.

When those unemployed but not seeking employment are excluded, the percentage of those in the workforce but with other than full-time jobs is lower. But the growth of that category from 4.7% in 1990 to 8.5% in 1996 is still disturbing. It peaked at 8.9% in 1995.

The overall results from this year's survey do two things. They confirm a reversal in the deterioration of the previous six years, with the percentage of those in the workforce without full-time jobs dropping to 6.4% from last year's 8.5%. And they clarify what caused the apparent tripling in those unemployed but not seeking employment. As was suspected last year (C&EN, July 29, 1996, page 10), it turns out that even though the survey questionnaire is not sent to members whom ACS classifies as retired, increasing numbers of retirees have been receiving it and responding.



Chemists' salaries vary depending on geographic region and degree level

This year's questionnaire, for the first time, specifically asked respondents if they are fully retired. The tally of returns indicates that 2.3% of respondents answered yes to this question. This reflects the increasing number of chemists who are retiring early--voluntarily or involuntarily--and do not have the 30 years of ACS membership needed to qualify for the society's retired status.

If patterns of the past are repeated, it will be several years before ACS's measure of unemployment among its members returns to its minimum level of l%. After the previous peak of 2.2% in 1983, it took four years. After the all-time peak of 3.2% in 1972, it took seven years.

Another indicator of improvement since last year is the 5.0% of this year's respondents who were unemployed at some time during 1996. This is down sharply from the 7.8% who reported last year that they were unemployed at some time during 1995. And it is well on the way to the 3.0% who were jobless at some time during 1990.



This year's survey shows the usual differences in the employment status of various subsets of ACS membership. For instance, women are less likely to have full-time jobs (91.3%) than men (94.3%). This difference is largely accounted for statistically by the higher number of women--4.2%-- with part-time jobs compared to men--1.6%. Another difference is the higher percentage of minority members on postdocs or fellowships--4.6%. This compares with 1.8% for the nonminority member category and reflects the lower median age of minority members.

Other than the distribution of postdocs, any differences in the employment situation for chemists by highest degree, most recent work, and geographic region are not large. One exception is the 3.2% of those in academia with part-time jobs. This compares with 0.9% of industrial chemists with such jobs. By regions, the survey indicates chemists in the Pacific and Mountain regions are less likely to have full-time jobs than their colleagues in the East, with an elevated 3.5% in postdocs or fellowships and a somewhat higher than average 2.5% looking for employment.

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