The Manic Depressive Chemistry Jobs Market: A 24-Year Perspective

December 19, 2012

CycleThis year's Employment Outlook by C&EN states what by now has become perfectly obvious to every chemist - the job market stinks. As if that weren't enough, the story Barely Hanging On stands as probably the most pessimistic piece the magazine has published in the last few decades.

Following on the heels of the gloomy jobs outlook, the ACS Presidential Commission on Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences just reported on "a risk that the number of career opportunities in the chemical science professions may be insufficient to accommodate those qualified for and desiring entry."

According to ACS, 2012 saw the highest unemployment rate among chemists on record. Students are being guided away from chemistry, while those with established careers are forced to do other things.

However, as a chemist lucky enough to have seen a complete business cycle during my career, the most striking thing is not the widespread abandonment of chemistry as career option, but the regularity with which this happens.

The cyclical nature of the chemistry jobs market is an important part of the equation mostly left out of today's employment and education discussions. Before drawing long-term conclusions, it may be useful to consider the long-term perspective. At no time is this more important than during periods of extreme excess or scarcity.

For your consideration, the following presents a 24-year history of the chemistry jobs market as told by annual C&EN Employment Outlooks.

1989 - Welcome to the Boom Town

"The employment market for chemical professionals was more robust this year than at any time in the recent past. Recruiters report that there seemed to be more jobs, particularly for B.S. and M.S. chemical engineers and Ph.D. chemists, than there are candidates to fill them. As a result, both chemists and chemical engineers are getting higher salaries. Furthermore, some companies even began to offer bonuses to new graduates who accept job offers. Also, companies believe they may need to hire more foreign graduates who do not have permanent residency status in the U.S. And more job candidates this year have been bidding one firm against another for salaries."

1990 - Summer Breeze

"Uncertainty marks the employment outlook for chemical professionals this year. Although fall recruiting is expected to be high for chemists at all degree levels - and even higher for chemical engineers - recruiters and placement offices alike predict that a further downturn in the U.S. economy or an outbreak of fighting involving the U.S. in the Middle East could quickly make job offers evaporate. Starting salaries for chemists changed little last year, not keeping up with inflation at the bachelor's or master's level. They actually declined for Ph.D. chemical engineers, although B.S. engineers continued to receive sizable increases in starting salary offers."

1991 - Dust in the Wind

"After almost a decade of growing demand for chemical professionals, 1992 looks to be much less rosy. The recession is taking its toll on chemical companies, several of which are not only recruiting fewer chemists and chemical engineers, but cutting back their present staff as well. ...

Demand for chemists and chemical engineers will be down substantially in 1992. Signs of softening were already apparent by the end of September, when this year's recruiting season unofficially began, and most recruiters, college placement centers, and student advisers contacted by C&EN expect the number of entry level jobs available to shrink a good deal further in the coming year."

1992 - Ashes to Ashes

"Newly graduated chemists and chemical engineers will not be happy with the job market they are likely to face in 1993. The recession that caused employers last year to cut back on hiring and, in some cases, to decrease their present staff is not yet over. Although chemical company profits are beginning to show signs of improvement, many companies remain cautious in their hiring plans. The outlook at universities isn't good either, because serious budget problems, particularly at state universities, make it difficult for departments to hire and support new staff, even in the face of rising enrollment in undergraduate science courses. The brightest spots in an otherwise gloomy employment picture are the drug and consumer product companies, where demand for chemical professionals remains strong."

1993 - Losing My Religion

"The job market for the coming year isn't shaping up to be a good one for chemists or chemical engineers. From the newly graduated B.S. chemist or chemical engineer, to the Ph.D., the postdoc, and even the midcareer professional who's been caught in the downsizing taking place at many large companies, success in finding industrial employment may require looking harder at nontraditional employers, such as smaller firms and those outside the mainstream of chemistry. For those seeking tenure-track jobs at universities, the extreme shortage of openings of the past few years may be easing a bit, but here, too, 1993-94 remains very much a buyer's market."

1994 - You Get What You Give

"As the 1995 recruiting season gets under way, the job outlook for the coming year seems to be better than it was a year ago, when upcoming graduates found themselves facing one of the worst hiring years in the past two decades. Newly graduating chemists at all degree levels in 1995 should find jobs slightly more plentiful than in 1994 or 1993, but flexibility and resourcefulness remain the watchwords in finding a job. The downsizing and restructuring that have characterized much of U.S. industry continue among employers of chemists, but the pace seems to be easing. This tight market and concern about job stability are among the reasons experienced and inexperienced chemical professionals are exploring a wide variety of options to use their talents, from starting their own businesses to seeking a career as a chemical technician. Whatever path they choose, chemical professionals will find that the job market in 1995 will continue to be a challenging one."

1995 - Send Me an Angel

"The job market for chemists and chemical engineers remains tight, but there are signs that the job market for 1996 may be better compared with the past few years. Layoffs are still occurring, mostly among large pharmaceutical firms that have recently merged and are shedding positions that they see as duplicative. But big layoffs by traditional employers of chemists have largely ended. In the academic world, the long-expected hiring to replace retiring professors finally seems to have begun, although the competition for every opening is fierce. The advice of the past few years still holds: Chemists and chemical engineers are urged to be flexible, resourceful, and open to a wide range of employment options."

1996 - Semi-Charmed Life

"For the first time in several years, it appears that the light at the end of the employment tunnel is not from an oncoming train. In this annual examination of career opportunities for chemists and chemical engineers, C&EN finds that the job market looks brighter compared with the past few years - at most degree levels and in both industry and academia. The consensus among many recruiters, chemistry department chairmen, and college placement directors is that there will be many more jobs for chemists graduating in 1997 than there were in 1996."

1997 - I Can See Clearly

"Chemists, as a group, also have fared well. There has been a "sharp reduction" in unemployment - from 3% to 2% - for chemists, says Corinne A. Marasco of the American Chemical Society's Career Services Department. Those figures from the ACS 1997 Salary Survey, she adds, are backed up by other reports of increased industry recruiting on college campuses and heavy competition among chemistry employers to retain skilled workers."

1998 - Crystal Blue Persuasion

"Although the 1999 job market could be as good as it was in 1998--which was the best on record for the 1990s--it could also be dampened by an ailing global economy. ... Although the employment outlook is largely encouraging, some data raise concerns about the long-term health of hiring. For example, even though salaries of individual chemists and chemical engineers are growing at a median rate of 4 to 5% per year--more than twice the rate of inflation--the overall employment situation as revealed by American Chemical Society surveys has slipped."

1999 - Running Up That Hill

"The sentiment among recruiters and chemistry department chairmen is that chemists and chemical engineers graduating in 2000 will enter a job market that's shaping up to be one of the best in the past 10 years. By virtually all accounts, demand for new graduates is expected to be as good, or nearly as good, as it was in 1998, the best year of the '90s. Industrial hiring slipped a bit in 1999, but the job market in general remained strong, and the academic market gathered steam."

2000 - Life in the Fast Lane

"Chemistry--the central science--has never been more central. Pharmaceutical and biotech companies are scrambling to find chemists to assist in drug discovery and development. ... The job outlook for 2001 is as good as it gets. Barring an unforeseen disaster in the U.S. economy that would reduce demand, chemists and chemical engineers graduating in 2001 will have a wide choice of exciting and rewarding jobs."

2001 - Wind of Change

"Last year at this time, C&EN reported in Employment Outlook 2001: 'The job outlook for 2001 is as good as it gets. Barring an unforeseen disaster in the U.S. economy that would reduce demand, chemists and chemical engineers graduating in 2001 will have a wide choice of exciting and rewarding jobs.' ... So it's no wonder that 'caution' is a watchword for the 2002 recruiting and hiring season, as is 'quality.'' A spokesman for one major chemical company says, 'The number we hire will depend on the business environment ahead, and that can turn at the drop of a hat.'"

2002 - Those Were the Days

"The employment market for chemists has deteriorated sharply over the past year. Unemployment among American Chemical Society members who wanted to work hit a 30-plus-year high of 3.3% in March of this year."

2003 - Under Pressure

"These are difficult times for the U.S. economy, and chemical scientists have not been spared the fallout. Unemployment for chemists--as measured by unemployment of American Chemical Society members--is at a record high. C&EN Editor-at-Large Michael Heylin reports that the jobless rate of 3.5% that the most recent ACS Salary Survey reveals as of March 1 this year is up from 3.3% a year earlier."

2004 - Lithium

"It's rough out there. For the fourth consecutive year, the job market for chemists remains depressed. ... C&EN Editor-at-Large Michael Heylin analyzes information from the most recent ACS Salary Survey. He reports that unemployment among ACS chemist members in the domestic workforce was at 3.6% this March."

2005 - Down the Drain

"For the fifth consecutive year, the job market remains depressed for chemical scientists and engineers."

2006 - Don't Give Up

"Chemical scientists and engineers looking for jobs in 2007 will find the market a little better than it has been since 2001. Maybe. Chemical company earnings are a bright spot in an otherwise lackluster economy."

2007 - Here Comes the Sun

"Chemical scientists and engineers of the Class of 2008 who are looking for jobs might find the strongest job market seen since 2001. It may be too early to tell whether the coming year will be a seller's market, but all signs indicate that the situation is brighter than it has been in recent years."

2008 - Boys of Summer

"Members of the class of 2009 who will be looking for jobs in the coming year better get busy. Although it's too early to say how the current financial crisis will affect employment in the coming months, job seekers should do all they can now to increase their marketability, such as building up their professional networks and making contacts with recruiters who visit their campuses."

2009 - We'll Meet Again

"The past year has been one of devastating job loss for working people in the U.S., who are now experiencing nearly 10% unemployment. Although chemical scientists are faring better than the public-at-large, they are also out of work at record levels."

2010 - How Soon is Now?

"The slowly recovering U.S. economy is awakening demand for the products and services of U.S. businesses that employ chemists. After years of slashing chemistry-related positions to cut costs,employers appear ready to hire again, according to a survey of recruiters, university placement officers, and companies by Senior Editor Susan Ainsworth."

2011 - Hurt

"Although the Great Recession that began in December 2007 ended in June 2009, the economy is still fragile, and the outlook for chemical companies - and for the chemists they employ - remains uncertain."

2012 - Paint It, Black

"Like their counterparts in other sectors of the U.S. economy, chemists and chemical engineers have been traumatized by devastating job cuts since the Great Recession began in December 2007."