28 January 2009 15:31 [Source: ICB]
Encouraging students to pursue a career in the chemical sector is becoming increasingly vital
THE STATE of the world economy may appear a more immediate threat, but the lack of young people entering the industry is a ticking time bomb.
Perpetually vacant positions, a shortage of skills, and increased numbers of experienced workers retiring without passing on their knowledge all contribute to the mess.
Despite efforts to address the shortfall, there is still a dearth of college graduates opting for process and chemical engineering.
In 2007, the UK-based Chemical Industries Association (CIA) conducted a survey among its members, and found that 90% had difficulty hiring science graduates, with 45% describing it as "very" difficult. Only 5% said graduates were well prepared. Some 60% of companies were recruiting graduates from other countries - mostly from Europe but also India and China.
"There are some huge challenges ahead, and we will need good scientists, good technologists and good engineers to go out and fix the problems," says Andy Furlong, director of policy and communication at the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), the UK-based international professional and qualifying body for chemical engineers. "If you look at future requirements around energy, the bio sector, food and drink, and sustainability, I am certain that there is going to be continuing demand for skilled and qualified process engineers. Irrespective of the overall economic picture, there will be a need to be met," he says.
Since 2001, IChemE has worked to improve the intake to first degree programs in chemical and process engineering. Numbers are up by 55% in the UK.
PIQUE INTERESTS EARLIER
Although internships, open days and plucking promising students from the college campus continue to prove successful, chemical companies are starting to get more inventive with their recruitment methods. The consensus now appears to be that they need to target an even younger audience.
Tom Tritton, president and CEO of the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based Chemical Heritage Foundation(CHF) in the US agrees that the long-term future and viability of the chemical industry depends on a highly educated workforce.
"Most of the company executives I talk to think that the educational initiatives that we, and others like us, run should be aimed at very young people," he says. "By the time they get to college, if they're not interested in science then nothing is going to change their minds we lose people very early in the pipeline."
So the CHF runs a museum, develops programs for teachers and provides follow-up material for the classroom.
"We have a physical presence through our museum that portrays the history of chemistry and looks to the future," he says. "But the limitation, of course, is that you have to be here [in Philadelphia], so we've also developed a large web presence full of educational material.
"We're now trying to generate funding for a virtual version of our museum on the web so that they can experience our collections as if they were here. We've started work on the initial stages, but it's a complicated process - and part of a long-term plan."
Similarly, last Novemberthe IChemE launched a campaign in an attempt to persuade them to stick with science.
The "Top 10 Flash Bang Demos" are a set of practical experiments targeted at 11to16-year-olds with the aim of making school science more exciting. IChemE is providing teachers with downloadable instructions, safety advice and worksheets explaining the science behind each demonstration.
"It's all in the delivery," says Furlong, "And it's a complete myth that health and safety legislation has taken the excitement out of school science. There are plenty of inspiring teachers out there, and given the right kind of support, it is perfectly possible to deliver lively demonstrations that switch kids onto science.
"The evidence suggests that primary school kids are excited and enthusiastic about science and technology - but something causes them to switch off when they get to secondary school. We are working to change that."
Steve Elliott, chief executive of the CIA, agrees that engaging children before they choose their future career path is key to resolving the labor crisis.
"We tend to put the limited resources we have at primary school level," says Elliott. "We contribute £80,000 ($117,228, €88,385) each year to the work of the Chemical Industry Education Center in York, UK - a joint venture between the CIA and the University of York."
The flagship program allows primary-school children and their teachers to visit chemical facilities to improve their understanding and appreciation, and perhaps change their perception, of the industry.
The CIA is also a supporter of the National Skills Academy for the Process Industries - part of a network of employee-led centers of excellence. The aim of the Academy, he says, is not only to promote the sector to potential employees but also to help identify skills gaps, provide suitable training and demonstrate competence levels to both employers and employees.
SOW NOW, REAP LATER
Chemical producers will clearly reap the rewards if they commit more of their time and money into recruitment drives. BASF, the world's largest chemical firm, has launched numerous initiatives to instill some excitement and interest among children about the company's career paths.
As well as working closely with teachers to provide training highlighting the latest developments in science, the German major conducts presentations called "SCIENCE live!" to spur pupils' interest in natural sciences.
For more than a decade, the company has also been hosting Kids' Labs, allowing sixto12-year-olds to carry out various experiments that grab their attention and inspire. Currently held in 16 countries, the program attracted some 67,000 children in 2008.
In addition, each year, BASF invites 20 promising high school students with a special interest in natural sciences to its Ludwigshafen headquarters for a 10-day summer academy.
Swiss specialty chemical firm Ciba, meanwhile, has also pledged support to numerous universities and students, and has scholarship programs to nurture new talent.
The company works closely with chemical federation SGCI Chemie Pharma Schweiz, and last November contributed towards the launch of the internet-based SimplyScience program focused at 12to16-year-olds.
Appealing to a younger demographic through videos, competitions and games, the web site will include careers information and E-lessons on scientific and technical topics.The Association of Petrochemicals Producers in Europe (Appe) - part of the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) - sponsors an educational program called Xperimania, where secondary school students across Europe participate in online discussions (see box).
With productioncapacity increases, global expansion and an aging workforce, this increased impetus among the chemical sector must continue. Judging from the evidence from the past few years, these initiatives certainly appear to be having a positive effect.
What's more, the credit crunch could even work in the industry's favor, suggests Elliott.
"Historically, people might have studied a tough degree discipline such as chemical engineering for four years, following which some would have been attracted by big salaries in the City.
"Today, with the credit crunch, they won't be able to do this. Perhaps this is an ideal opportunity for the chemical industry to attract more young people and particularly graduates."
On a cold, wintry morning last month, I arrived in Brussels, Belgium, at Cefic's headquarters to experience first hand their efforts in encouraging students to pursue a career in the chemical industry.
Cefic's Xperimania project was launched in the 27 EU member states in 2007. Its aim was to raise awareness about the importance of chemistry and its ubiquitous application.
In the 2007-2008 school year, around 1,000 pupils participated in the program's various activities - including internet-based seminars and competitions. Some 50,000 students visited the web site.
My role was to participate in one of their online meetings with children from 12 secondary schools across Europe. The theme was based on an article I'd written in May 2008 that considered how tough it would be to live without petrochemicals - specifically, common thermoplastic polypropylene (PP) - for a week (see ICIS Chemical Business, May 19, 2008). Inevitably, the task was a resounding failure, but it still stimulated some encouraging debate from the children, with some keen to attempt it themselves.
However, by the end of the session, I'd made two clear observations. Some of the students - aged 10-20 years old - seemed genuinely surprised that chemicals played such a major role in their everyday lives, while others appeared concerned that the products they came into contact with were in some way dangerous.
Clearly, the challenge for industry goes far beyond simply conveying the many benefits and opportunities provided through a career in the sector. Perhaps first, the priority is to work further to overhaul the industry's image and allay the fears of those it is so keen to attract?
Hopefully, imaginative programs such as this will go some way to achieving both.
What are your views on the labor shortage and what is your company doing? Email email@example.com.
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