15 May 2002 11:36 [Source: ICIS news]
Public opinion research sponsored by the UK’s Institution of Chemical Engineers (IchemE) has once again put the spotlight on the chemical sector’s most critical problem – companies’ ability to attract and keep talented individuals.
The IChemE research highlights the fact that the British public at least doesn’t know what chemical engineers do or that they play a vitally important role in industry, not just chemicals. Those that recognise the profession think that chemical engineers are secretive.
The lack of understanding is not surprising. Was the role of chemical engineers in sectors from power to chemicals and food to pharmaceuticals ever widely recognised by anyone outside those industries other than in some government and academic circles? Of greater concern has to be the aggregate response to the poll. Chairman of the market research organisation, MORI, Bob Worcester, told the first IChemE General Assembly on 14 May that the public has virtually no understanding of chemical engineering. "You are probably the most rigorous industry in the world for engineering, for safety and security, and yet you have one of the worst reputations of any industry we measure," he said.
Incoming IChemE president Julia Higgins put the issue in a nutshell when she emphasised that reputation is the single most important issue for the profession. It has major implications for recruitment, the status of chemical engineers and the future direction of chemical engineering.
Unfortunately, as the chemical industry has found there are no quick fixes. A sector’s or a profession’s reputation is lost easily and regained only with great effort. It can slip away with detrimental, long-term effect.
The MORI research shows just how far chemical engineers have to go to build understanding and trust in British society. It may be becoming more widely recognised that countries like the UK have to look towards a high technology and increasingly innovation and science based future. But there is a great deal of catching up to do in terms of understanding what it is that makes economically important industries tick.
Julia Higgins says that just as chemical engineers play a crucial role in today’s chemical and other manufacturing industries so they will be responsible for developing solutions to some of the biggest problems facing society such as energy provision, fresh water supply and medical breakthroughs in the biosciences. In other words, the role of chemical engineers in the fabric of the national economy is changing.
The IChemE has a far from easy task trying to explain that chemical engineers are needed in the power business (alarm bells should be ringing, Higgins says, because no nuclear energy courses are being run in Britain as part of any of the country’s 22 chemical engineering courses) and in newer, science driven sectors. Chemical engineers helped develop the manufacturing and heavy industries of the past. Their future role will, in her words, be less about chemicals and more about innovating in the field of new science driving innovation at the high end in growing areas such as tissue engineering, bioscience and pharmaceuticals. This reflects the chemical industry dilemma of having to attract the talent to run and develop the heavy end while addressing the needs of newer and faster moving segments.
The poor reputation of chemical engineers in the UK has a direct impact on recruitment to the profession and to the wide range of industry sectors which need these individuals. The message is that the IChemE, industry and academia have to work together to demonstrate the vitality and importance of the profession.
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