Chemical industry leaders answer the call of duty to promote education and recruitment

All aboard!

11 November 2009 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Industry leaders get behind the ICIS Education and Recruitment campaign to grab students' attention early on and nurture exciting careers
Joseph Chang/New York and Andy Brice and Will Beacham/London

 Rex Features

THE FUTURE of a vibrant chemical industry demands a call to duty, and it couldn't be more clear - to spark interest in science and technology at a young age, attract graduates into the industry and then guide them on a promising career path.

No easy task - but from company CEOs, employee volunteers to industry associations, people are acting quickly on this critical issue. "Getting our young students interested in science and technology early enough in their school lives is one of the most important things we can do as an industry and as a nation," says John McGlade, chairman, president and CEO of US-based industrial gases and chemical firm Air Products.

The issue is particularly important in the Western world, where the chemical industry is graying, and faces huge competitive pressures from developing nations.

"Europe faces competitive threats from low-cost labor. There is no point in competing head-on in terms of cost. In these regions, companies need improved skills to operate in a smarter way and deliver real added value," says Tom Crotty, CEO of INEOS Olefins & Polymers Europe, in an interview with ICIS.

"In the UK, one of the biggest crises facing our science-based industries is the availability of skilled people at all levels, whether we're talking about graduate engineers or skilled fitters on major projects," he notes. "We can ignore this issue and hope that it goes away, or we can do something about it."

And indeed, chemical companies are reaching out to students in primary and middle schools through various programs to spark interest early on.

Air Products conducts its LIN (liquid nitrogen) Ambassador Program, where it sends employee volunteers out to schools to demonstrate the properties of cryogenic liquids.

One of the demonstrations include dipping objects such as hot dogs, balls and flowers into a vat of liquid nitrogen to instantly freeze them and then breaking or crumpling them to demonstrate cryogenic grinding and freezing techniques.

The highlight is the making of LINcream, which is made right in front of the audience, by pouring LIN into ice cream ingredients. The ambassador leaves it up to the audience to decide how it compares with store-bought ice cream. "We use a bit of pizzazz in demonstrating the nature of a cryogenic liquid and what it can do - and hopefully it piques their interest," McGlade says. "It's important to generate that interest early in a student's development so that they continue to stick with a focus on science and technology."

Each year in March, UK-based chemical giant INEOS runs the INEOS Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) fair in Falkirk, Scotland, UK.

Designed to promote science, engineering and technological subjects through investigation and teamwork, more than 1,850 Primary seven children (10-11-year-olds) from 52 local schools take part in this event for one day over the 12 days that it runs.

Budding scientists and engineers attended five workshops:

  •  Who wants to be a scientist?; and
  •  Flash bang wallop – both exploring properties of light and the concept of sound
  •  The K'NEX Challenge – designing and constructing a distillation tower;
  •  Build a kite – planning and building
  •  Jitterbugs – making an electronic gadget.


"As an industry that relies on science and technology, it is important that we enthuse the next generation to take up these subjects at secondary school," says Crotty. "This event is about showing children that science and technology can be fun through participation in workshops and hands-on activities."

Sparking interest in science and technology at an early age is no doubt critical to the future of the chemical industry.

But what happens after a graduate chooses his or her career path? How can the momentum be sustained?

To expose new graduates to real-life business experience, Air Products takes them through its Career Development Program (CDP) - it hires graduates into the program for about a two-year period to work on three assignments.

And these assignments are not set in stone. A CDP member can pick and choose, seeing where his or her capabilities fit best within the company. The Air Products program, created by company founder Leonard Pool, is now in its 50th year. When the program started in 1959, the company had sales of $48m (€32m) versus $8.3bn in fiscal 2009 (ended in September).

The last three CEOs of Air Products, including McGlade, all started their careers with Air Products through the CDP program.

"Even if participants fall in love with their first assignment and decide that's all they want to do, we've found over the years that taking the other two assignments either validated their initial choice or opened them to other opportunities," says McGlade.

"It also gives people the ability to network and build relationships in other parts of the company so they can have those contacts as they develop their careers."

Sarah Arscott (pictured with McGlade, during the actual interview), is a graduate from Villanova University's College of Engineering who has been working as a maintenance engineer for Air Products in the CDP program since July.

"The variety of opportunities available in this program means I can take my career in many different directions and work and contribute in a wide range of areas," says Arscott, who has a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering.

Right now, she works in a maintenance engineering group of about 20, helping coordinate projects with technicians.

"So far I've been able to get my hands on a variety of upgrade projects at a couple dozen sites. For example, a section of piping may need a new valve, so I'm coordinating with technicians and getting these upgrades implemented on a fast track," says Arscott.

"The ability to see real projects like that and see my work make a difference is a great feeling, especially this early in my career," she adds. Sarah's dream job 5-10 years from now? Developing and executing large-scale capital projects worldwide. "Project development and execution - coordinating with people and driving projects forward - is something I'm really passionate about," she says.

"We invest $1.5bn a year, so we need talented project managers that can bring together the commercial, operational, engineering and technical resources necessary to build a $150m hydrogen plant, or a $100m oxygen plant, whether it's in Texas, China, or Saudi Arabia," says McGlade.

Among Arscott's achievements, she received the Mentzer Award at Villanova in May, due in large part to her role as Chapter President of nonprofit humanitarian organization Engineers Without Borders for two years, and Chapter President of the Society of Women Engineers at Villanova in her senior year.

At the graduate level, INEOS commits to high-quality modern apprenticeships.

At its Grangemouth, UK, site, for example, the company has around 100 apprentices in training at any one time.

"It is a testament to the quality of jobs that we offer that applications for the limited available places are always massively oversubscribed," says Crotty. "In addition, we have recently launched a new initiative called Engineer of the Future." The program, a partnership between INEOS, Forth Valley College and Heriot-Watt University, puts students through an accelerated apprenticeship immediately followed by an engineering degree.

"We hope this will give us engineers whose experience is not just academic but also practical - a situation much more akin to our major competitors in Germany," Crotty says. "Perhaps other parts of our industry should consider similar initiatives to promote the right skills, at all levels in the organization."

An added advantage of this program is much closer relationships between academia and industry - "something we have not been particularly good at in the past," he adds.

INEOS is building relationships with local schools and colleges. In Lavera, France, the company is part of a community forum bringing together companies, colleges and primary and secondary schools from local areas.

"Events highlight the wide variety of roles and skills in our industry, from IT to accounting, production, maintenance, logistics and engineering and analysis," says Crotty. "Site visits help to provide an insight into the opportunities that exist and the passion of the people that work on our sites."

Each year in November, INEOS holds a "school-enterprise week" devoted to site visits for primary and secondary classes.

INEOS's site in Cologne, Germany, also runs a modern apprenticeship system, with strong links to local schools and colleges. "Working with the chamber of commerce and a technical university in Berlin, we have also been able to supply local primary schools with resources to reintroduce experiments back into the classroom," says Crotty. "Teachers are instructed each year to help them to get the most out of these chemistry boxes to inspire budding scientists."

The global financial and economic crisis has limited hiring needs for the time being, but the long-term challenge of attracting students into the chemical industry has not faded.

"One of the key questions in the industry before the economic crisis hit was: Given the demographics in the Western world in particular, would we be able to replenish our need for technical talent as many of the baby boomers begin to retire?" says McGlade.

"You can't just drive economies solely on banking"
Graham van't Hoff, vice president global base chemicals, Shell
"This recession may have bought us a few years, but the long-term need for technical, science and engineering talent to differentiate ourselves is still there, and that's why these industry programs to build outreach and interest are so critical to our future," he adds.

The global economic recession also puts the spotlight back on manufacturing, rather than the financial sector.

"If there is good news in where we are at this time, it is that there is now a recognition that we still need real economies. You can't just drive economies solely on banking," says Graham van't Hoff, vice president of global base chemicals at Anglo-Dutch major Shell.

And macro trends such as a greater focus on energy, the environment and the rise of emerging markets provides science and technology students with exciting career opportunities.

"There is a growing recognition of climate change, and the attractiveness is rising for graduates to be part of the solution. As an industry, we need to capitalize on that and show that we are part of the solution," says van't Hoff. "We are improving our messaging in this space, but we need to continue on it. That will make us more attractive to younger people - to be part of the solution rather than just an observer who happens to be there and pass money around," he adds.

"These trends and the dwindling supply of people interested in science, technology and engineering in the US create a very bright future for someone who wants to put in the work and effort that comes with a four-year engineering degree or an advanced degree in any of the physical sciences," says McGlade.

"In five to 10 years' time, I hope that the chemical industry will be at the forefront of solutions to the economy and within that, climate change. And it will be recognized as such by politicians, the wider public and graduates and potential employees," says van't Hoff.

And even while the US and European manufacturing footprints are shrinking, research and development (R&D), engineering, as well as management jobs are still needed in the US.

"As companies globalize, and our industry needs to build plants around the world to supply those local markets, that also requires hiring people in the US, where a lot of the engineering, R&D and business management takes place," McGlade says.

"So as companies grow globally, you have to add capabilities - not just in the geographic areas you're investing in, but here in the US as well."

US restrictions on foreign student visas due to security concerns since 9/11 have hindered growth in the local chemical and other industries, says John McGlade, CEO of Air Products.

"One area where we didn't help ourselves as a country was on the limit on student visas. Foreign students have been a great source of interest in technology, science and mathematics," says McGlade.

Having more foreign students in the US also provides the opportunity for US-born students to experience the diversity of cultures - a critical aspect to the growth of US industry in a globalizing business world.

"The other side of it is that if foreign students get an education here in the US, it would be wonderful to hire those students to either work here or for US-based companies in their home countries," says McGlade.

"To be successful globally starts with an understanding of those individuals and cultures from other countries," he adds. "I don't think we did ourselves a great service by getting more and more restrictive on how many student visas we accepted in a given year."

However, McGlade says he is now encouraged to see the more recent increases in foreign students returning to US universities and hopes that this countertrend will continue. The upturn is an indication that US government officials recognized the negative implications of restricting foreign access to US education and the cultural experience that goes with it, he says.

Tom Crotty, CEO of INEOS Olefins & Polymers Europe, echoes this sentiment, asserting that the need for top talent is a global issue.

"High quality people are essential to the chemical industry as it continues to provide skilled well-paid jobs across its many sites around the world," says Crotty. "To maintain these jobs, companies and governments need to be flexible and adapt to change. Wherever the industry is in the world, the skills it needs to maintain efficiency and to operate safely and profitably have to develop with it."

Visit the ICIS Education & Recruitment campaign site

By: Joseph Chang
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