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Feature Article

October 2000, Volume 3, No.8, pp. 38–44.

Pharmaceutical Job Market Still Growing and Glowing

By Michael J. Felton

opening artACS survey finds drug chemists younger, better paid than most in other fields; nearly one in three are women

All signs point to growth in pharmaceutical employment with increasing benefits to those currently—and those who will soon be—in the pharmaceutical workforce.

However, employers may face hardships because the pool of available workers has shrunk, raising salaries and causing the loss of expansion opportunities due to lack of staff.

This view of pharmaceutical employment was formed using data from the ACS annual and five-year comprehensive salary surveys and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The information from these sources offers insight into the industry’s employers and employees.

Chemists in the pharmaceutical industry are a growing percentage of the total ACS membership, as seen in Figure 1. This trend reflects the tremendous growth in the pharmaceutical sector and its impact on chemists and other workers.

Figure 1. Shift in employment from chemical to
pharmaceutical industry.
Industry and the economy

The U.S. economy continues to grow at impressive rates, while the employment market remains tight. In recent months, pharmaceutical and biotech companies have received more attention as profits have increased and the Human Genome Project has brought biotechs into the spotlight. Mergers also continue to change the face of the pharmaceutical industry, as economic pressures change an industry that was once assumed to be mature into an entirely different enterprise.

Growth in the pharmaceutical sector shows pharmaceutical employment expanding at a greater rate than the economy, signaling impressive opportunities in the pharmaceutical area. According to a BLS report (1), between 1998 and 2008, jobs in the drug manufacturing industry, which does not include biotech research laboratories, will increase by approximately 11%. This makes it one of the fastest-growing manufacturing industries. The report also says that “faster than average growth is expected for professional specialty occupations—especially the biological and medical scientists engaged in research and development, the backbone of the drug industry, and computer systems analysts, engineers, and scientists.”

Where the jobs are
The abundance of jobs depends somewhat on where you live in the United States. Of the ACS survey’s respondents, 33% were employed in the Mid-Atlantic region; that region also had relatively low unemployment (1.7%) as of March 1. The South Atlantic (0.8%) and New England regions had still lower unemployment rates.

The eastern areas showed less unemployment in 2000 than did western areas, including the Pacific (1.7%) and Mountain (2.4%) regions. In addition, southern chemists had a somewhat higher jobless rate than chemists in the North; however, the trend is much less pronounced than between the East and West.

When geographic areas were compared by degree, B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. chemists were predominantly employed in the Mid-Atlantic and East North Central. However, the rankings differ greatly, with more B.S. chemists in the pharmaceutical industry working in the South Atlantic (12.8%), Pacific (10.9%), and New England (10.3%). M.S. degree holders were working in New England (12.9%), the Pacific (12.1%), and the South Atlantic (11.2%). Ph.D. chemists, on the other hand, were more likely to be working in the Pacific (16.9%) and New England (14.1%), with the South lagging behind at 9.8%.
Figure 2. Position versus salary.

Positions and demand
In general, chemists who do not work in laboratories are paid more than those who do, as seen in Figure 2. This trend highlights employers’ needs for managers and other staff who understand the science and research but can also manage business operations. Chemists working as managers, both in general capacities and as managers of R&D, rank as the highest paid among all education levels. Chemists working in sales and marketing and in computer specialization positions have been in demand and garner increasing pay. Rising information technology demands have also affected the availability of computer specialists. Virtually no chemists who were in computer specialist positions were unemployed on March 1. In addition to the demand for these professionals in the pharmaceutical industry, these workers are sought by the booming information technology industry, further depleting the pool of potential employees.

Size of employers
Nearly half (46.4%) of the workforce in drug manufacturing is employed by a few extremely large (25,000 or more employees) pharmaceutical companies, according to the BLS (1). At the other end of the spectrum, 1% of workers are employed at 37% of the establishments with 1–9 employees. The ACS survey also found that employees at larger companies are generally paid more than workers with the same education level at smaller companies.

Meet the average chemist
The ACS survey included 7260 respondents who indicated that they worked in the pharmaceutical industry. They represent a wide range of chemical disciplines. Of these respondents, 72.1% were men, 27.9% were women, and 97.1% of those responding were employed full-time. The high employment rate, showcased by the low 1.2% unemployment rate, shows the extremely good job market and the demand for chemists in the pharmaceutical industry. About half of the respondents were Ph.D.s (51.2%); the other half were split between B.S. (24.7%) and M.S. (23.1%) holders.

The employment rate among chemists in the pharmaceutical arena is higher than that of all professionals and other chemists. The full-time employment percentage for chemists, in general, is 92.9%, with 2% unemployed and the remainder either in part-time, postdoctoral, or fellowship positions. This difference may be a result of the younger workforce in the pharmaceutical industry, as younger workers tend to work in full-time positions.

The average chemist in the pharmaceutical industry is 40 years old, while the average age of working chemists is generally 43. Almost 80% of chemists in the pharmaceutical area are married, of whom about half are married to nonscientists (48.2%).

The BLS estimated that chemists made up 4.9% of pharmaceutical workers in 1998, the largest number of any single professional specialty. The number of positions for chemists in the pharmaceutical industry is expected to increase by 12.9% from 1998 to 2008. Although this is the lowest expected increase of professions identified by the BLS in the industry, chemists should remain the largest single group of professionals in the pharmaceutical industry.
Figure 3. Attitudes toward fair pay, professional advancement, and managerial advancement.

Figure 4. Salary versus number of years since B.S. degree and highest degree.

One of the most interesting aspects of the ACS survey is the responses to questions about job satisfaction and job potential. Most respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their pay was fair (78.7%) and that they had chances for professional advancement (75.3%) and/or managerial advancement (66.6%) in relation to others of similar qualifications within their company, as seen in Figure 3. Managerial advancement appeared to be more competitive: 33% of respondents did not think that their chances of advancement were the same as others with similar qualifications. The lower expectations of this group may have less to do with workplace inequalities than with the challenge of developing good managerial skills. Management is a much more subjective ability than technical expertise. Men were slightly more positive than women about fair pay as well as their prospects for professional and managerial advancement.

Degrees and positions
The ACS survey results show that the salary gap between B.S. and M.S. chemists is widening, as seen in Figure 4. M.S. chemists who have worked 15 years or more since earning their B.S. see smaller monetary differences between their salaries and those of B.S. chemists. In fact, M.S. chemists who have worked 39 years since their B.S. earn median salaries 15.3% less than B.S. chemists who have been working for 39 years. M.S. chemists have become more valued by employers, as they now often obtain an M.S. while working. M.S. degrees are no longer seen as failed attempts to earn a Ph.D., and pay has increased accordingly.

As in previous chemistry salary surveys, Ph.D. holders earn substantially more than both M.S. and B.S. holders. Chemists with a Ph.D. earn a median salary of $90,000, those with an M.S. earn $63,263, and those with a B.S. earn $54,000.

Salaries also varied with the type of position that a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry held. Those earning the lowest wages, more easily seen by examining salaries earned by B.S. and M.S. workers, are in the laboratory. Production/quality control, analytical services, basic research, and applied research are the lowest paying of all positions but had the highest numbers of survey respondents.

The extremely tight labor market—especially for professionals—shown in Figure 5 has been a thorn for employers and a boon to workers. This figure shows the unemployment rate for professionals and managers, according to the BLS, and the unemployment rate for chemists according to ACS data from past surveys. Figure 5 demonstrates the similarities of the studies and connects chemists to the general economy. As discussed earlier in this article, chemists in the pharmaceutical industry are in higher demand (with a 97.1% employment rate) than chemists in traditional chemical industries, who have a 92% employment rate, presumably because the chemical industry is growing more slowly than the economy. In fact, chemistry unemployment is 2.0% for 2000, but it was only 1.1% in 1990, which shows increased unemployment even in this growing economy. The extremely high demand for employees in the pharmaceutical sector may draw displaced workers from the chemical industry. In any event, employers have significant difficulty finding employees.
Figure 5. Percent unemployment by type of position.

According to the ACS survey, only 3.9% of full-time chemists in the pharmaceutical industry were unemployed at any time during 1999. The number jumped to 6.1% for part-timers and 7.7% for postdocs. Of these workers, few found jobs within one month. Most found new jobs in 1–3 months, while many found jobs within 6 months. The low percentage of temporarily unemployed workers indicates a low turnover rate, and the large number of these individuals who found positions relatively quickly testifies to the tight labor market.

Of the 1.2% of chemists in the pharmaceutical industry who were unemployed still looking for work as of March 1, 2000, 82% had spent between one month and more than a year looking for a job. Many job seekers indicated that they have restrictions that affect their search. About 30% reported that they could not relocate, and 12.5% of men and 23.5% of women reported that family responsibilities restricted their job search. Another 29.4% of women job seekers reported that they had other considerations that led to restrictions in their job search. The approximately 55% of job seekers with circumstances that restricted their job search may be an untapped reservoir of potential employees for companies that can offer flexible working conditions.

The survey shows several fields with very low unemployment, indicating a high demand for workers in these areas. For example, no unemployed respondents worked in the computer area, which may be a sign that the current high-tech job market has a glut of computer-based positions and relatively few chemists to fill them.

Women and men
Data from this study indicate that women earn less than men. The median salary of men was $81,689; for women, the median salary was $62,048. This number may be greatly affected by the median age of men—41—compared with 36, the median age of women respondents. Regardless, the inequality trend shows signs of changing. Newly trained B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. men and women make similar salaries up to a decade after completing undergraduate school. The disparity between men and women is largest for chemists of all degree types who have worked for 35–39 years beyond their B.S.

A significant factor contributing to the disparity between older men and women chemists could be the hiatus that many women take to have and raise children. More women (19.4%) than men (10.7%) had taken a hiatus longer than six months during their career.

Women were also more likely to be unemployed during their absence (1.5%) than men (0.4%). This unemployment is likely to have resulted from caring for a family rather than being unemployed and actively seeking a job. Women on hiatus had a significantly higher percentage who worked outside the profession during their hiatus (11.2%) than men (7.1%).

The survey also questioned the gender of a participant’s immediate supervisor. Men responded that 85.5% of their supervisors were male and 13.2% were female. Women responded that 76% of their supervisors were male and 23.5% were female, indicating that women tended to have another woman as a supervisor about two times as often as men.

A BLS report on managers and professionals painted a somewhat different picture of possible reasons for payroll inequalities by gender (3). It showed that male professionals and managers work longer hours than female professionals and managers. This finding does not necessarily mean that women are paid less because they work fewer hours; rather, it could be a symptom of the management and professional responsibilities that are given to women versus men. Male professionals worked an average of 43.5 hours a week and female professionals worked an average of 37.5 hours a week in 1999 (3).

The employment of chemists in the pharmaceutical industry appears to be growing as the industry grows faster than even the strong U.S. economy. Although no survey can predict the future, the results of the ACS and BLS surveys indicate continued economic success for the industry and its employees.


  1. Authors, Career Guide to Industries, 2000–01 Edition; U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 2000.
  2. Are Managers and Professionals Really Working More? Issues in Labor Statistics; U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 2000.
  3. Current Population Survey (Labor Force Statistics); Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor: Washington, DC, 2000.

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