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Cover Story

November 5, 2007
Volume 85, Number 45
p. 45-49

Job Market Gathers Strength

Company growth plus retirements are fueling increased hiring, especially for chemical engineers

Corinne A. Marasco

CHEMICAL SCIENTISTS and engineers looking for jobs in 2008 will be greeted with a job market that is stronger than it has been in years. According to industry representatives and university chemistry department heads C&EN talked to about the current recruiting season, two factors fueling the increase are company growth and a wave of retirement that is expected to occur in the coming decade.


Growth in hiring is not just in chemical sciences and engineering, it is across the board. The National Association of Colleges & Employers (NACE) is seeing signs of a stronger job market overall in 2008, based on responses to its "Job Outlook 2008 Fall Preview" survey of its 3,000 employer members. Employers say they plan to hire 16% more new college graduates from all disciplines in 2007–08 than they hired in 2006–07.

Hiring for new chemists and chemical engineers is expected to be up compared with the levels of the past several years. The industrial representatives who spoke with C&EN report seeing an increase in the number of employers looking for recruits at career fairs and on campus. This isn't surprising, given the large employee base transition that is likely to occur over the next five to 10 years. Most employers are facing similar challenges.

According to projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force in the next 10 years will be affected by the aging of the baby-boom cohort, those born between 1946 and 1964. The annual growth rate of the 55-and-older group is projected to be 4.1%, four times the rate of growth of the overall labor force.

To fill these upcoming vacancies, industrial employers are seeking chemists with skills in synthetic organic chemistry, polymer chemistry, materials science, biochemistry, and analytical chemistry, while demand for chemical engineers remains high in the petrochemical industry.

"OxyChem mainly recruits for chemical and mechanical engineers, and we will be increasing our new hires this year," says William F. Carroll, vice president of Occidental Chemical and American Chemical Society past-president. "As in 2007, 2008 will be a good year to graduate with one of those degrees. The decline in graduates, coupled with a generational turnover in major companies, makes engineers scarce and in demand."

"WE'RE LOOKING FOR graduates with a good record, internship experience, and a desire to learn in a manufacturing environment," Carroll adds. "Students who are willing to relocate have an edge over those committed to specific locations, since we have operations in many places in the U.S." OxyChem also plans to offer internships to select students, a practice that has been shown to enhance the overall success of the company's recruiting program.

Recruiting is slightly slower at Dow Chemical this year than last, although numbers are still high compared with those in recent years. The company is undertaking more active outreach to interns and has converted a number of them to full-time employees prior to beginning recruiting on campuses this year.

According to Deborah Borg, manager of workforce planning at Dow, North America, "Hiring engineers, including chemical engineers, is a high priority for Dow. Our greatest need is in the Gulf Coast, and it's also the hardest place to fill jobs because we are competing with other companies in our industry as well as strong competition from the oil and gas industry."

Dow is also looking for chemists at all degree levels. In research at Dow, twice as many Ph.D. as bachelor's and master's job candidates are hired. In the engineering and manufacturing areas, the company looks only for bachelor's and master's candidates. In addition to degree qualification, the company looks for internship experience, volunteer experience, leadership traits, and teamwork skills. For new Ph.D.s, the company also likes to see publications, papers, and other research experience that demonstrates practical skills. Foreign-language capabilities are a plus because the company is always looking for people who can take international assignments, Borg says.

Like many companies, Dow is facing the demographic challenges that come with employee retirements. Borg says that over the past three years, in addition to large graduate recruiting programs, Dow has simultaneously accelerated hiring of midcareer scientists in order to fill the gaps in institutional knowledge.

Gus Tolson, director of North American regional staffing solutions for specialty chemicals producer Rohm and Haas, concurs that this is going to be a banner year, especially for chemical engineers.

"We are very aggressively recruiting chemical engineers at the B.S. and M.S. levels and through co-ops," he says. "The job market is really strong for them. The mix of brand new and experienced chemical engineers fluctuates from year to year, but we try to maintain a good pipeline of leaders and talent for the future."

Rohm and Haas has a development program for bachelor's- and master's-level engineers. These employees rotate through the various business components before deciding where they will specialize. The company believes this investment will work to its advantage over time.

Talented engineers will be in demand for overseas assignments because of the common difficulty in finding good talent in the regions where the company does business. "There are opportunities everywhere—in India, China, Asia-Pacific, Europe, and even in Latin America," Tolson says. "We need to move people around and get them to where they're needed."

As for chemists, "In 2007, we plan to recruit about 20 to 25 Ph.D.s, the same as last year," Tolson says. "There is lots of competition for them from other companies. We're looking for people with a strong background in polymer chemistry, as well as in materials science, who bring creativity, communication skills, and technical flexibility to the job."

The optimism about this year's recruiting season extends to the biotechnology sector. Over the past year, large biotech companies have made a major shift into small-molecule drug development in an effort to diversify their portfolios. This move requires them to significantly upgrade their in-house chemistry research teams and integrate them with biology teams in order to identify promising small molecules (C&EN, Oct. 30, 2006, page 14).

Bruce Roth, senior director of small-molecule discovery chemistry at Genentech, says the aggressive expansion into small-molecule research will continue into 2008, so the company will be recruiting chemists at all degree levels and many different areas of chemistry.

Recruiting Gets More Creative

Talent search

With the job market rebounding, corporate recruiters are enhancing their traditional recruiting strategies to boost hiring rates. For example, they are making campus visits earlier in the school year, increasing the number of campuses they visit, updating their companies' career websites, and trying other ways to brand themselves as an employer of choice.

"Companies that are going to win the war for talent are willing to try new things to see how they work," says Gus Tolson of Rohm and Haas. "Students are using social networking tools like MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn, so we have to go there to reach them. Candidates should have the ability to learn about us at their convenience, when they want to. If you want to know what life is like at Rohm and Haas, you can find out any time of day."

Rohm and Haas's career website includes video clips of employees talking about their work. Part of the company's recruiting strategy is putting on a tailgate party at Pennsylvania State University to reach students as well as alumni and experienced people. If tailgating proves fruitful, the concept may be expanded to other college campuses.

According to Procter & Gamble's Ray D'Alonzo, technology has made it much easier to get information about potential candidates. "Some schools are putting together résumés of Ph.D. students who are graduating in the next 12 months and making them available electronically or packaging them as a directory, which can be e-mailed," D'Alonzo says. He has also proposed using online conferencing to conduct remote information sessions with students interested in the company.

In addition, P&G published its first Ph.D. career brochure to be disseminated only electronically because it contains hotlinks to other P&G Web pages as well as external sites of interest.

Deborah Borg reports that Dow Chemical's career website has undergone a major renovation. "We want to really attract people," she says. "We're doing a lot more through technology to uncover that first round of people who might be interested."

Dow sends out text messages to let people know when the firm will be recruiting on campus. They also use flash videos to promote the company as an employer of choice, webcasts that offer a chance to listen to employees describe "a day in the life" at Dow, and live question-and-answer sessions with Dow employees as an outreach effort to students.

Building on job seeker interest in sustainability, Dow's sponsorship of the 2007 Blue Planet Run to raise funds and global awareness about the shortage of safe drinking water is a topic the firm discusses during recruiting. It's an event that Dow uses as part of its "recruiting tool kit," along with bottles of water that were purified using Dow technology, to show the tangible contributions Dow is making to the global community.

"The future looks bright," he says. "At the Ph.D. level, we're looking for strong synthetic organic chemists. At the associate scientist level, we're looking for master's-level people or people with a bachelor's degree who have significant research experience as part of their undergraduate training. We look for people with industry experience as well as those who are fresh out of graduate school and who bring fresh ideas into the organization."

Roth says Genentech is currently recruiting candidates from a variety of fields, among them biochemistry, computational chemistry, and medicinal chemistry, as well as process chemists for formulation work. While small-molecule discovery has been the major focus, the company also has expanded research in its process development, drug metabolism, and pharmacokinetics sciences.

Each year, Genentech visits more than a dozen universities, meeting candidates and building relationships with professors to understand what's going on at the universities and to connect with students who may be graduating in a year or two.

"We like students who come prepared and who are sharp and on their game," Roth says. "Past performance predicts future performance. If candidates demonstrate the ability to communicate and work on a team and have a record of accomplishment, then we're definitely interested."

The petrochemical industry remains a bright spot in hiring, but it's also feeling the competition for top qualified candidates. "On-campus recruiting is becoming increasingly more competitive, so students graduating with a chemical engineering degree will likely have multiple offers," says Maricela Caballero, who is learning, development, and strategic staffing manager for Chevron Phillips Chemical. "Part of the demand is driven by a shortage of petroleum engineers. Some companies are hiring chemical engineers to fill the need, which makes recruiting tougher for companies like ours that hire predominantly chemical engineers."

The company is actively recruiting B.S.-level chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineers. Caballero says her firm's recruiting forecast for 2007–08 is similar to 2006–07 actual full-time and intern hires. "We continue to aggressively recruit new graduates for the talent pipeline we are building for leadership positions that will become available over the next three to 10 years due to workforce retirements and forecasted projects," she adds.

Chevron Phillips looks for results-oriented self-starters who possess demonstrated leadership abilities, have strong technical competence, and are able to work well at all levels of the organization. Also important are self-confidence, accountability, and strong oral and written communication skills.

Last year, consumer products company Procter & Gamble projected a temporary decline in hiring but ended up having a better year than expected. This year, says Ray D'Alonzo, manager of doctoral recruiting and university relations, things are looking good now that the company is back on track after completing the integration of Gillette, which it purchased in 2005.

"We are seeing a healthy demand in chemistry, chemical engineering, and materials science," he says. "Historically, our greatest needs have been in analytical chemistry, but we're seeing greater demand in engineering than in the past."

The increased demand for Ph.D.s in chemical and mechanical engineering has been fed by the company's lines of semidurable electronic products like shavers and toothbrushes. The company is also taking advantage of modeling, computation, and simulation technology to make manufacturing more efficient, so these skills are in demand.

The increased demand for Ph.D. materials scientists is relatively new for the company. Many P&G products, such as Swiffer, Pampers, and Olay Regenerist Eye Derma-Pod, use substrates—synthetic or fiber-based applicators or absorbents that contact a surface—and materials science plays a greater role in developing these products.

University representatives tell C&EN that they are getting more recruiter inquiries for their students. They add that 2008 also looks like it will be a good year for people applying for assistant professor positions.

According to University of Michigan chemistry department chair Carol A. Fierke, "The employment outlook appears to be better this year than last. Companies visiting the department to interview students have more openings to fill this year compared with last year, when some companies visited simply to maintain their ties to the school and others rescinded their visits because hiring was frozen. Some companies that haven't visited in the past couple of years are planning to attend this year."

LAST YEAR, most of the students and postdocs in Michigan's chemistry department who were looking for jobs were hired as postdocs, faculty at community and four-year colleges, or chemists in the utility and pharmaceutical sectors, Fierke says.

"I have been pleasantly surprised at the employment outlook for the coming year," says Michael T. Crimmins, department chair at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "It seems to me that there are more industrial positions than in the past two or three years, and there are a significant number of academic positions available.

"Last year was a weak year for employment," he adds. "I believe the vast majority of students found positions, but many had only one job offer," so their options were limited.

Crimmins' department is also searching for two new junior organic chemistry faculty members. One is a new position, and the other is an opening that was not filled last year.

"The employment outlook for our postdocs and recent Ph.D.s continues to look quite favorable," says Michael P. Rosynek, professor and associate head of the department of chemistry at Texas A&M University. "Last year, 13 companies arranged to conduct interviews in the department, and this year, 14 companies have signed up. Our graduates typically do very well at receiving invitations for second-round, on-site interviews after their initial campus interviews," he says.

Rosynek adds that his department is recruiting for both junior and senior faculty positions. Their current needs are higher than in recent years due to the deaths of two senior faculty members and the departure of two junior faculty members during the past year.

Timothy M. Swager, professor and head of the department of chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reports that he is getting many more inquiries for new Ph.D. graduates than last year, but he's not entirely optimistic. "I think the job market could be better, and I still know of some people who are having a hard time finding a job," he says. Swager's department also has tenure-track openings in biological, organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry.

Michael P. Doyle, professor and chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland, College Park, says there are more academic jobs to fill at the school than in the past two years. His department has three searches open this year, two on the biology side and one in materials. He notes, however, that the hiring situation for postdocs is still harsh due to the decrease in federal funding. "We saw individuals a year before receiving their Ph.D.s who were applying for postdocs at other institutions being told that there might be one available in three years," he says.

RESEARCH HOSPITALS might not be high on chemists' lists of potential employers. But these health venues are actively searching for chemists who can translate basic research into actual drugs. St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, in Memphis, is a pediatric treatment and research facility that treats children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases. Research efforts are directed at understanding the molecular, genetic, and chemical bases of such diseases in children; identifying cures; and promoting prevention.

In 2005, St. Jude opened a chemical biology and therapeutics department to facilitate the discovery of new bioactive small molecules and to bridge the gap between identifying newly discovered active compounds with modest efficacy and potency and using highly active compounds as pharmacological tools or preclinical leads.

"With the opening of the new department, we have had a tremendous increase in hiring chemists," says Kara Jackson, research recruiter for St. Jude. "We are looking for people with skills in high-throughput screening; high-throughput chemistry; and organic, medicinal, and analytical chemistry. We hire candidates with bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees for our research staff positions."

Julianne Bryan, director of operations for St. Jude's chemical biology and therapeutics department, notes that one of the main recruiting challenges is competing with industrial salaries. She believes her department's success in recruiting top people is because those who accept jobs there can watch firsthand as their research moves from the bench to a patient's bedside, a reminder of the importance of St. Jude's mission.

As another way to attract potential job candidates, St. Jude has entered into a partnership with Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, to create a joint program for graduate students studying at the interface of chemical biology and medical translational research. The program will include a chemical biology curriculum carried out at Vanderbilt, elective courses for specialized training, an interactive seminar series in chemical biology, an annual research retreat, and an in-depth laboratory research experience including lab rotations at Vanderbilt and St. Jude.

"We're very excited about this opportunity to enhance research interactions between chemical biology at Vanderbilt and research programs in many departments at St. Jude by bringing graduate students here to carry out their thesis work," says Kip Guy, chemical biology and therapeutics chair and codirector of the program.

Demand for chemical scientists may be growing, but it's not a job seekers' market just yet. Candidates are still advised to take the time to research companies they are interested in and assess the whole package—compensation, benefits, retirement, professional development, and other perks—to determine how they can fit in and excel at a particular company.

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