EPCA: Talent search must start earlier

27 September 2013 11:04  [Source: ICB]

Major companies across the chemical industry are facing a shortage of engineering and scientific graduates as well as the demographics of an ageing workforce. And the problem needs to be addressed at an early age.

Jan Van den Bergh, president of Evonik’s Advanced Intermediates business unit and president of EPCA, says: “From our perspective, there is a lack of natural science and applied science education in schools. Due to this fact we as Evonik started our ‘Young Spirit’ initiative already in 2003, an exclusively internal company activity focusing on children aged 3 to 10 in order to enthuse even the youngest with natural sciences. Evonik employees are trained and actively engaged to visit the day care establishment or elementary school, carrying out experiments with the kids.”

chemicals girl REx Features

Rex Features

Inspiring children to take up science is a key first step in drawing talent to the sector

Evonik is not alone. Many chemical companies are choosing to visit the classroom in order to enthuse children with science and make their brand name known to potential future employees at an early age. Shell Chemicals, for example, runs science workshops in schools, followed by family science days, as well as offering resources to support teachers, while BASF runs student labs and offers plant tours to youngsters.

Eelco Hoekstra, chairman of the executive board at Vopak and EPCA board member, is positive about the allure of science for young people. “The pendulum seems to be swinging slowly back towards science and catching the imagination of youngsters more and more,” he says.

“This is partly due to the increase in technology and gadgets generally noted in society, which is placing more focus on the sciences. There is now more of a dialogue around science and its ability to solve, which will help to increase the influence of science generally.”

Yet there is the problem that even if children are enthused by science at an early age, this energy to discover can often be quashed once the more academic training sets in at secondary school and science gets serious.

Science ambassadors are needed in order for the subject to have a strong presence in schools. Andy Talkington, vice chairman, co-head global industrial practice at CT Partners, points out that if pupils are then left alone for too long without being reminded of the joys and uses of science, other distractions will get in the way. “The industry needs to show young people that subjects such as chemistry and maths can be translated into real well-paying jobs and show the types of roles and careers they could have.”

David Brown, chief executive of the UK’s Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) agrees, but adds: “It is also the industry’s job to convey to parents and to teachers what the benefits of sticking with maths and science are, to show that there are well-paid jobs where you can make a difference.” He adds that the situation is not helped because careers advice is often not as helpful as it should be at secondary school level.

One factor that is drawing young people towards science is the current economic situation. Teenagers are beginning to steer themselves towards those subjects that have excellent job prospects, with many recognising that those who have gained a non-scientific qualification may find it harder to find employment in a tougher labour market.

The UK’s school exam results provided some positive news for the sciences, with biology, chemistry and physics now in the top 10 fastest growing subjects studied at A-level (exams taken at 18 years old), with 24,000 more people taking exams in the sciences in 2013 than 2009, according to statistics from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ).


IChemE reports that following a UK campaign “whynotchemeng?”, students of chemical engineering have risen by 130% in just over the past 10 years, which has also led to higher quality university courses. The number of students applying to study chemistry meanwhile has increased by 45%.

Chemical companies also have a presence in the universities of Europe, whether it be CEOs sitting on advisory boards, or going into universities to give lectures, both activities that are carried out by Vopak’s Hoekstra.

Van den Bergh says: “We work closely together with several top-ranked universities all over Europe which are important for Evonik regarding research projects and recruiting. Our department ‘Process Technology and Engineering’ for example, has chosen several engineering schools to partner with and is building student relationships by offering intern programmes or other activities like company visits.”

The industry can also target an increasingly diverse selection of graduates. Hoekstra points out that it is relatively easy to attract academics to Europe. “There are lots of strong academic programmes here and foreign students are often drawn to the high quality of education offered at European universities. Another factor is of course the exceptionally low cost of education in Europe compared to other regions.”

He adds that once foreign students have gained their education in Europe, many of them choose to stay and pursue a career, attracted by the history and legacy of European companies.

Talkington agrees, saying that foreign graduates come to Europe for the quality of education and need to be convinced to stay by the industry. Another option, he says, is to offer a position within the company, but in the graduate’s home country. This is increasingly important as companies need to be “multi-local” when operating overseas.

Talkington adds: “There are technical centres in different areas of the world that can collaborate easily with one another, and this area of the industry is expanding.”

The industry however needs to also be thinking about it can attract graduates from different regional pools of talent, especially as the highest growth levels in the chemical industry have been seen in Asia, the Middle East and India during the past decade, which has resulted in some of the strongest academic programmes being developed in these countries. And while working remotely works well for a number of roles, the industry also needs to ensure it is able to replenish those positions where location close to the plant is essential.

Vopak’s Hoekstra says that recruiting academics and senior scholars is not the issue, but rather finding people at an operator and technician level. The company is working to address the issue.

“If you want to make a career in the company you will be exposed to the technical and operational area,” Hoekstra says. “We support people to move from commercial roles to more technical roles. We have a few academics who have chosen to be shift leaders for a couple of years.”


Talkington agrees. “Who is going to operate the plants for you? Who will keep them running? To get people into these operational roles you have to compete for the talent at all levels.”

In Europe, while graduate numbers taking up the sciences is increasing, the expanding field of science is also creating a challenge for companies trying to recruit into the chemical sector, especially when businesses in the oil and gas sector may be able to pay higher salaries.

Talkington says: “Chemical engineers face more exposure to other industries – from environmental to bioengineering, for example. The breadth of application of that education has increased. There is now less focus on entering the chemical industry if you are a chemical engineer. We are not as strong a brand for students as we need to be.”

Brown points out that while the chemical industry is playing a role in recruiting talented workers, more could be done. “The industry needs to blow its own trumpet more, to show the opportunities are there, and there is a wide range of careers on offer. It also needs to work more with the different official chemical bodies – we are the bridge between education, the universities and the companies. It needs to be seen that the chemical industry as a whole is the place to be.”

He adds that at some engineering recruitment fairs, the big companies are not always present or are often overshadowed by the more extravagant stands and freebies offered by companies from other business sectors.

In the UK, there is a new trend of choosing the vocational route to starting a career in science rather than picking university, which could help to fill the more technical and operational positions. This is increasingly seen as a good option for students who are asked for experience when applying for jobs but find it hard to come by.

As a result the option to “earn while you learn” is expected to increase over the coming years. Brown points out that the calibre of apprenticeship applicants is getting higher, as more well-educated “pushy parents” are now encouraging their children to follow an apprenticeship, rather than a degree, route to gain qualifications. Many companies now offer robust professional accreditation which is often as high as those qualifications obtained at university.

For university graduates, starting salaries continue to rise, especially in the energy sector, indicating continued strong demand from employers. But while high salaries and clear company branding can be used to attract talent from home and abroad, strong talent management is essential. European chemical and distribution companies see themselves as strong contenders in this field.


Hans-Jorg Bertschi, president and CEO of logistics company Bertschi Group and EPCA treasurer, says: “A key point for talent management is you need to have a very comprehensive programme where you start to select and hire young talent on a continuous basis, mostly directly from university. Your company can train and develop them in a very systematic way, expose them to international experts on the business side and build up their talent to design supply chains for industry in the future. But producers are not doing that in a systemic way anymore as they are focusing their talent management on their core business activities – R&D, production, marketing and sales.”

Evonik’s Van den Bergh meanwhile says that talent management is a cornerstone of its success, maintaining a company-wide overview of in-house and outside talents. “We take a strategic approach to ensure tailored, sustainable people development. People development and talent management are key aspects of our leadership philosophy. Continuously learning and training workers on and off the job, systematic competence management, development programs, clear job and career paths and a culture of active feedback all help to keep motivation and qualification of our employees at the highest level.”

The European chemical industry has a lot to offer as a future career option, but many agree that the benefits of working in the sector are being undersold to young people. A continuous and united effort is needed by the industry to ensure that the scientists of tomorrow see and take advantage of the diverse and challenging roles on offer.


The EPCA has put education on the agenda and is encouraging the industry to work together to get their message across to young people. Jan Van den Bergh explains what is being done:

EPCA promotes the study of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) with youngsters aged 14 to 18, their teachers and parents through the making and distribution of two short films.

EPCA pic

 Chemistry is all around us – in food storage...

The first film is called: “Chemistry: All about you”. It shows that chemicals are everywhere while at the same time creating positive feelings about these products. After all, chemicals make our daily lives better by responding to the global population’s increasing and changing needs.

The second film is called “Science: Where can it take you?” and encourages STEM education as a means to make a career in or for the chemical industry. Guidelines have been developed for science teachers with European Schoolnet to make STEM education more practical and attractive.

EPCA has concluded partnership agreements with European Schoolnet, inGenious and UNESCO for the distribution of these EPCA films and guidelines in their respective school networks in Europe and all over the world. Under these partnerships EPCA participates in workshops for scholars and teachers to familiarise them with chemicals and the chemical industry, underscoring that this industry is the necessary supplier of all other industries in the world.

In this context a teachers’ workshop is being organised at the EPCA Annual Meeting in Berlin with the support of inGenious and UNESCO, to allow teachers to meet with opinion makers of the chemical industry and learn more about this industry’s leadership role.

 EPCA pic

... computers and mobile phones

EPCA explains that the chemical industry needs the support of talented and creative young persons with the right mindset and skills to allow the continuation of its innovative, customer responsive role, bringing solutions to sustainable development (people, planet, profit).

These messages and the films are also promoted via the EPCA, APLA, APPE, CEFIC, European Schoolnet, GPCA, inGenious and UNESCO websites and social media addresses and newsletters as well as via the website and social media addresses of member companies.

Last but not least, the films are promoted via the sponsoring of sports events for young people like the kid’s marathon in Budapest last year, which will be held this year in Berlin on 28 September.

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