Rock stars need not apply

18 September 2006 00:00  [Source: ICB Americas]

Are chemical companies being threatened by an increasing difficulty finding qualified workers?

SOME 8,500 students attending grades five through 12 in North Carolina were asked what they wanted to be when they grow up. The top answers, according to the survey, conducted recently by Futures for Kids, a nonprofit organized to stem rising dropout rates, were music producer (11%), music video producer (10%), and interior designer (8%).

Mainly absent from the top 20 choices were any careers - the exceptions being pediatrician (5%), plastic surgeon (5%) and veterinarian (4%) - requiring science or math backgrounds.

The evidence, both anecdotal and statistical, is that the penchant of these North Carolina youngsters for the artsy/glam end of the career spectrum is nothing new to the youngest generation of Americans. The number of bachelor's degrees granted by US colleges in engineering and related technologies in 2002 (68,160) was off a percentage point from only six years prior, according to the US government's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Degrees in the physical sciences were similarly off 8.7% during the period those for mathematics fell 1.1%, and biological and life sciences degrees fell 6.2%. Alone among the disciplines requiring any science or math, and in striking contrast to the others, computer and information sciences degrees were up 91.2%.

And the lack of qualified workers is not just a problem for those jobs requiring higher education. According to a survey conducted last year by the National Asso-ciation of Manufacturers (NAM), 90% of company executives reported a moderate to severe shortage of qualified, skilled pro-duction employees. It said 65% reported a moderate to severe shortage of scientists and engineers. And 39% even reported a moderate to severe shortage of qualified unskilled production employees.

"Wages in manufacturing are 22% higher than other fields," says Stacey Wagner, managing director of NAM's Center for Workforce Success. "But high-skill jobs are going vacant."

No need to study math

"The educational system is not doing a very good job," she says. "They need to teach more math and science in school to young people." Instead, students are increasingly saying "I don't need to study math, I'm going to be a rock star."

"Less and less young people are going into engineering," says Thomas Wertz, a human resources director at Hercules. "We've been having some real difficulties with technical jobs."

Increasingly challenged

The upshot is that the human resource pro-fessionals who help recruit the 900,000 (as of August, according to the BLS) workers for US chemical companies (a figure that does not include administrative and managerial staff), say they are increasingly challenged when trying to fill vacancies and are going to ever greater lengths in the pursuit of the qualified.

The Futures for Kids ( is just one example, with dozens of corporate partners including GlaxoSmithKline and PPD, a biotech con-tract research firm. Other programs are being pushed by groups like the Chemical Education Foundation, American Chemical Society and Chemical Heritage Foundation, the latter of which sponsored Bill Nye the Science Guy, a popular science show for kids, which originally ran on PBS from 1992 through 1998.

Going the distance

Beyond these industry-wide efforts, the companies themselves all report going to ever greater lengths to try to secure personnel.

Robin Lysek, who is in charge of central staffing for all North American hiring and university recruiting at Air Products, admits to going to lengths she "wouldn't have imagined" to secure the hundreds of qualified recruits she must produce annually. This year alone, she says, her company will ask her to help cough up more than 900 hires, due to a mixture of retirement, replacement and new hires.

The list of jobs she must fill run the gamut from chemical engineers, megasys tech operators, plant operators and administrative, managerial and clerical positions.

"Some are easy and some are difficult," she says. In the "easy" category are the corporate and staff functions. Skills such as these are easily transferable and enjoy a much wider availability than "plant operations or technical engineering."

What really challenges Lysek is the difficulty of picking up people with more specialized skills.

"There's been a slowdown of engineers over the past few years [and] we need skilled labor to drive our trucks and run our plants," she says. "We don't see people getting out of high school and saying 'I want to drive a truck and be on the road for seven days.'"

In the case of engineers, Air Products has worked with 17 universities to institute a program through which some 30 to 40 graduates each year are put through a three-year rotation, placing them in high-paying jobs involving chemical, mechanical and process engineering. After that, the employees who have completed the cycle get to choose the specialty they desire out of the many openings that are sure to occur.

In addition, she says, the company has internship programs for students still in college, as well as outreach projects for students in high school and below. "If we don't get these young people early, we won't get them," she says. "It's kind of like a funnel."

The truck drivers are another challenge being met head on. The company has resorted to deploying flashing signs on major interstate highways aimed at touting the benefits of coming to work for it. There is also a "car wash" program featuring shiny trucks accompanied by drivers touting the company to drivers stopping at truck stops.

Competition for techies

But despite the challenges involved in this recruiting effort, Lysek is reluctant to blame a declining educational system, instead observing that tech-minded students have "so many more options" than they did 10 or 20 years ago.

"When I entered university, we didn't have as many of the degree choices they do now," she says, pointing to the rise of virtually nonexistent fields as IT, the internet and advanced finance applications.

Similarly, Joseph Acker, president of the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA), also thinks many of the pronouncements of the failure of the educational system to embrace a science curriculum may be overplayed: "I see it as a cause for concern. I don't see it as a cause for panic, necessarily."

New issue?

"This isn't really a new issue," he argues. "And it's hard to really know if you just take chemical engineering over the past 10 years if the numbers have decreased slightly or remained the same."

"People hear that the US graduates whatever number of chemical engineers and China has 10 times than amount, but China has 10 times the population and is a developing country."

Acker, who got his undergraduate degree from Worcester Polytech in 1966, also echoed Lysek's argument that the challenge of filling chemical engineering slots may be caused more by greater choices for students.

Forty years ago, "you couldn't have even gotten a degree in computer engineering, let alone other fields such as environmental sciences, nuclear engineering and bioengineering," he says.

He also implied that some of the responsibility for the decline in chemical job seekers belongs to the government and the companies themselves, the former through fostering "overtaxation and over-regulation," causing the latter to send jobs overseas.

"To get crass about it, it's based on what high school students perceive as ways of making lots of money," he says. "Companies complaining they can't hire engineers are sending out press releases that they're moving jobs to China and India, so what are they complaining about?"

Top 20 Favorite Careers

According to Futures for Kids, mainly absent from the top 20 choices were any careers - the exceptions being pediatrician (5%), plastic surgeon (5%) and veterinarian (4%) - requiring science or math backgrounds

1. Music producer (11%)

2. Music video producer (10%)

3. Interior designer (8%)

4. Fashion designer (6%)

5. Small-business owner (6%)

6. Actor (6%)

7. Film director (5%)

8. Choreographer (5%)

9. Pediatrician (5%)

10. Fashion editor (5%)

11. Plastic surgeon (5%)

12. Chef (4%)

13. Artist (4%)

14. Sports manager (4%)

15. TV producer (4%)

16. Photographer (4%)

17. Web site designer (4%)

18. TV host (4%)

19. Elementary teacher (4%)

20. Veterinarian (4%)

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