Now it’s official—it’s not a pretty picture out there

Well, no doubt you’ve had at least a cursory look at the excellent C&EN cover story regarding the 2012 Employment Outlook for chemists. The cover shows a long queue of labcoat-wearing chemists, all presumably in line for the one available position. Cheery.
Even a beer line at a poster session is never this grim.

Image: C&EN

This story is in contrast to some previous commentary suggesting a recovery may be around some invisible corner, and, as chemists, we can get through it with grim determination. Following that, we’ll be somehow rewarded at the end of the ordeal. All we need to do is say “entrepreneurship” three times, click our heels together, and we’ll all be given a cushy new job in Kansas with all relocation expenses reimbursed. If you’ve been through layoffs and site closures, as I have, and are, in turn, still connected to former colleagues facing a similar fate—again—or are still unemployed after a protracted period of time, this insistence that things aren’t so bad can be, well, annoying. It suggests the problem is you. A few months ago, my personal annoyance meter pegged out, and I took ACS CEO and Executive Director Madeleine Jacobs to task for portraying the chemistry job market as rosier than I saw it, and for scolding a mother, a scientist who had gone through a downsizing, for urging her daughter to “not go into science.” Well, although I’m sure my post had little if anything to do with it, a similar message has gotten through. Facts are presented, and they are cold and hard. Okay. If you haven’t already, you need to read this cover story in greater detail. It’s broken up into several articles, with titles shown below. Under the heading of each title, I’ve followed with a few of my thoughts upon reading each one. There's much more information within each article than referred to with my superficial observations. You'll be doing yourself a disservice if you don't read each article in their entirety, regardless of where you are in your career journey. Overall, the full story was a struggle for me to get through—not because of how it’s reported (which is excellent), but because it rings so true. I've been there. Others still are there. It’s no fun revisiting. Anyway, here we go: For Hire Here, the stage is set with a big picture view of the Great Recession and current global economic factors. The promise is to drill down, in the accompanying articles, to the impact on employment for chemists, now and into the future. Tepid Recovery Curtails Hiring From the outset, no punches are pulled:

Not that long ago, chemists regarded their education as a guarantee of lifelong employment. That’s no longer the case.”

Compare that excerpt to one from the 1998 Employment Outlook, which, early on, began:
“In this annual examination of career opportunities for chemists and chemical engineers, C&EN finds an overall optimistic outlook for both industrial and academic hiring.”
A look backward was included in the current piece, stating:
“At the start of the Great Recession in December 2007, employment in the [chemical manufacturing] sector was 857,600. Five years earlier, it was 921,500. And 10 years before that—in December 1992—chemical manufacturing employees numbered 1.03 million.”
Well, that’s the wrong direction, to say the least. But enough about the past. The present is troubling, and the future may be even more so:

“Experienced chemists are certainly struggling, but new graduates are bearing the brunt of the downturn. As of October 2011—the most recent data available from ACS—unemployment among recent graduates in chemistry and related fields was 13.3%, up from 10.6% the previous year.”

 "The great disparity between new grads and experienced chemists has surprised David Harwell, assistant director for career management at ACS."
Yeah. It surprised me as well.

“Not only are recent graduates less likely than experienced chemists to have a job, but they also take longer than displaced workers to find a job.”

If these new graduates find employment outside of chemistry, it will become very difficult for them to return if there are more opportunities in chemistry in the future. And for the foreseeable future, a large percentage of expansion and any accompanying new jobs will be occurring outside of North America and the EU.

"It could take at least a decade for employment to return to prerecession levels, [Hartwell] says, and that’s assuming that the industry rebuilds to its former capacity in the U.S."

So there’s that. Barely Hanging On Subtitled: Unemployed chemists at the middle to late stages of their career are beginning to question their faith in chemistry. This is a series of profiles of people in dire circumstances, and are only able to confide their stories anonymously.

“The situation today is a tragedy of national proportions,” says Madeleine Jacobs, ACS executive director and chief executive officer. “It’s devastating to individual lives, and it’s devastating to this country.”

In spite of the brave face I maintained during my own period of unemployment, these stories mirror my own worst fears. Heart-wrenching. You see, these are my peers. Theirs is a fate that stands waiting, silently, on the other side of a paper-thin wall. A recurring nightmare. At the end, after such a sympathetic quote earlier in the article, Madeleine Jacobs gets the last word here, urging that people shouldn't be discouraged from going into science:

Despite the lack of jobs, ACS’s Jacobs maintains that chemists and chemistry are critical to the U.S.’s advancement. “I don’t want to discourage the best and brightest students from entering the chemical sciences, because there is no way to solve these great global challenges—providing clean water, providing sustainable energy, providing enough food, curing disease, protecting the homeland, and protecting the environment—without chemists and chemical engineers.”

Okay. I understand the concern. However, if there are no jobs, people will be discouraged. People have to make a living. If there’s nothing available in the sciences, they will turn to something else if they can. It’s that simple. ACS Launches New Resources For Unemployed Chemists It seems my timing of last Friday’s post was a little premature. No doubt answering some criticism, the ACS is stepping up their efforts to reach out to unemployed members. Let’s hope this effort amounts to some real help for those who need it. Carving Out A New Path: Unemployed Chemists Apply Their Skills And Expertise To Nontraditional Careers Four chemists, who each lost their industry position due to downsizing, share their experiences that drove them to seek nontradtional chemistry positions: teaching, medical writing, patent examiner and an inventor/entrepreneur. There are some good take-home messages here. I, too, faced the possibility of a career change when I lost my industry position. I undertook training and was open to several options. I was extremely fortunate to find, much to my surprise, a position more-or-less identical to the one I had lost, but in an academic setting. I sincerely hope all those who've had to make career changes are as happy, if not more so, than they were before. ACS Member Support: Help For The Unemployed A handy list of benefits and support available to unemployed ACS members. If you’re currently employed, bookmark this one, so you can find it in a hurry if you need it in the future. Plan for the best, but prepare for the worst. Chemical Professionals Are Moving Away From Family To Find Job Prospects Another hard read for me. I've mentioned before that although the long commute to my new position is a struggle, I have former colleagues who've had to move away from their families to continue their careers in science. Here are several more examples, in painful detail. This excerpt says it all:

Burnett feels fortunate to have found a position that allows him to pursue his passion for discovering central nervous system drugs. However, accepting the job has meant that he has had to live apart from his family for eight months so far. As a result, “I have a profound sense of loss,” he says. “You can’t replace the time that you share over a meal or over other activities that keep you close as a family,” says Burnett. “I truly miss that time. It is the biggest sacrifice I have had to make, and I think about it a lot.”

Yeah. So would I. All right then. I must say that I have mixed feelings about the change in the way the unemployment picture for ACS members (and nonmember chemists) is now being portrayed. I'm glad they're listening to their membership and telling it like it is—maybe this will translate to actually offering some tangible help. On the other hand, on a purely selfish level, I can no longer delude myself into thinking that maybe it's just my perception, and things aren't really as bad as they seem. I knew I was fortunate to have found a position after only five months or so after I was exited by my former employer due to a site closure. But even I didn’t realize how lucky I was. Am. If you’ll excuse me, I need to go count my blessings. And give my wife a hug.

Author: Glen Ernst

Chemistry and pharma researcher and manager. Lifelong passion for science, the arts and language. Blogger for CENtral Science, also blogging as The Scientist Next Door. LinkedIn:

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