27 September 2013 11:04 [Source: ICB]
Dealing with an ageing population is high on the priority list of chemical company boards and HR departments these days. A large proportion of the upper management in the sector is aged over 50, and the industry is rolling into very high retirement rates over the next 5-10 years.
There is also a definite gap in demographics, with cyclical downturns in the industry having led to lower recruitment rates and downsizing, including in research and development (R&D). EPCA statistics show that direct employment in the EU chemicals industry has decreased by an average annual rate of 1.9% from 2002 to 2011. Women also remain underrepresented within the sector.
Encouraging young talent into the chemical industry remains a major challenge
Eelco Hoekstra, chairman of the executive board at Vopak and EPCA board member, believes the company is learning to deal with the situation. “It is an issue if you don’t manage it, but the right career planning helps to solve this. You need to have a mixture between older and younger staff. In operations, for example, the more experienced staff members bring credibility and calmness to the game. You also need to be mindful that leaders rotate in order to gain experience.”
One consequence of the managerial skills gap within companies is that employees have to take a “double step”, Talkington says, in order to move up the career ladder. This means that they might not always have the depth and breadth of experience to have developed that gut feeling that is needed in higher managerial positions. The right people and the right moves need to be managed carefully to acquire a balanced skill-set within a company.
FEMALE ATTRITION IS HIGH
David Brown, chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), also points out that another aspect of concern is retaining skilled engineers, especially female engineers. “The evidence as far as we can tell is that the ‘attrition’ of experienced female engineers is relatively high, suggesting that matters such as better provision for career-break returners require attention,” he says.
The major challenge for the industry is to bring in young talent in the first place and then hold on to it. But companies are constantly competing against other well-paid sectors to secure and then retain their recruits.
There is now also added competition on a global level as a result of shale gas discoveries in the US, which is prompting a giant hunt for talent in the US and abroad, with large salaries on offer. The European industry may be able to recruit within Europe, Talkington says, but it will struggle to tap into the strong talent pools elsewhere in today’s environment. It will be especially hard to tap into the sort of research and executive talent that will help the industry to grow across a diverse group of countries.
The current economic crisis in Europe is helping some local companies however and high levels of unemployment in some regions offer opportunities for chemical companies to find new workers.
Jan Van den Bergh, president of Evonik’s Advanced Intermediates business unit and president of the EPCA, says, “Due to the continuing euro crisis, especially in southern Europe, for many young, well-educated eastern or southern Europeans, Germany is a country of opportunity where hard work and good performance can take you straight up the career ladder.”
Hoekstra says that employer stability is also a key factor in retaining a strong workforce and skilful managers. Although earnings are up and down in many sectors, many potential employees recognise which companies will be robust and stable employers.
“For us, recruitment is not such a challenge – lots of young people are attracted to the Vopak name and the economic crisis is also helping. We also recruit from the oil industry and other chemical companies, where people have already gained experience.”
Hoekstra adds, “It is not just the salary that attracts people to the company, it is the values. Company culture is very important and the benefits it brings. Companies that are world leaders and are publicly listed will also attract more talent.
“We can hold on to people. If you start a career with Vopak, we have strong leadership and development programs leading to personal and career growth.”
Increased recruitment of senior management from other companies is taking place in order to bridge the gaps, while employers are also having to work on overall compensation packages as those in demand are able to be more picky on aspects other than salary, including location options. Many companies are also concentrating on fine-tuning their employer branding.
COMPANY BRANDING IS VITAL
Van den Bergh says, “The concept of employer branding has become increasingly important over the past few years – for Evonik too – because, as a factor, a brand has become a crucial decision-making criterion for job-seekers. We have a good understanding of labour market challenges in the different regions and leverage this knowledge to support employer branding and recruiting and people development, for example sustainable talent pipeline management.”
Companies also need to be clear on their position within the industry and the prospects they have to offer. Hans-Jorg Bertschi, president and CEO of logistics company Bertschi Holding and EPCA treasurer, says, “Young people are starting to learn that the companies who work closely with very few professional logistic partners are those who have the talent in place to develop state-of-the-art global solutions.”
Social media can be one way to attract new, and especially young, talent. Some companies choose to recruit through websites such as LinkedIn, and graduates see the site as a good “door opener” into the industry. Many companies are now choosing to create a social media presence so that potential recruits can track down the company and they can develop their recruitment brand.
But world of mouth is still a powerful tool. “This still attracts a lot of people for us,” says Vopak’s Hoekstra. “We also do our rounds at universities across Holland and abroad.”
A continuous hurdle is the often negative image of the industry among the general public and sometimes among young science graduates, which the industry is constantly working to address. But there is also the general lack of knowledge around chemicals that needs to be tackled.
Van den Bergh says, “Chemicals are hidden in most products, but consumers are not always aware of their existence. As a result, the chemical industry is not the favourite industry for top talents on all levels. Chemical companies must continuously raise awareness and become attractive to top talents. Indeed, many of today’s global challenges in terms of energy, the environment, demographics, food supply etc, cannot be resolved without substantial input and innovation from the chemical industry.
“As surveys show, the challenge is that young talents are not always attracted by these ‘hidden chemicals’, but rather by high-profile consumer brands like cars, for example.
“Chemical companies should take advantage of the opportunity to showcase the contribution that chemicals make to society and of their ability to innovate.”
Employer branding, strong compensation packages and attractive talent management programmes are being developed within companies across the sector to tackle employee shortages at all levels and in all areas. Perhaps now the industry needs to be thinking about how it can brand itself as a whole, rather than its individual parts, in order to ease the recruitment pain.
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