The changing economy is driving evolution in chemistry employment. Andy Extance surveys the job environment that UK chemists inhabit today 

The UK needs more chemists. Industrialists and professional societies regularly bemoan shortages of scientists. The Royal Academy of Engineering estimates that from 2012–2020 there will be 830,000 degree-level jobs created in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).1 And it stresses that there are currently just 90,000 STEM graduates each year to fill them, of whom around a quarter leave science. Chemistry is at the heart of these industries. In 2010, an Oxford Economics report2 commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) found industries reliant on chemistry supported six million jobs. Overall, it seems prospects for chemistry jobs in the UK remain strong.

Or does it? The 2010 RSC–EPSRC report said pharmaceuticals generated almost half the chemical industry’s ‘gross value added’ (GVA), a measure of the money a sector contributes to the economy. But since then, pharma has suffered high-profile plant closures and redundancies, most notably Pfizer’s exit from its Sandwich, Kent site. In its analysis of Europe’s chemical sales (excluding pharmaceutical), Cefic, the trade association for the continent’s chemical industry, sees a continuing slow increase. However, Europe’s share of the world market has fallen from 36% in 1991 to 20% in 2011. So, those seeking UK chemistry jobs today could face a bleak picture. How can the country’s chemists puzzle their career prospects from such contradictory information?

Although the value of chemical sales in the EU is rising, its global share of the market has fallen

New jobs arise in two ways: those created through economic growth, and replacement ones coming as people leave the labour market, usually through retirement. The UK Commission of Employment and Skills (UKCES) says that 12 million replacement jobs will be created in all UK industries from 2010 to 2020. By comparison, just 1.5 million will come from new job creation, which represents a 0.5% annual growth rate in the country’s total job count.

Increasing STEM jobs’ portion in this mix is seen as a way to make the country more internationally competitive, explains Aoife Ni Luanaigh of UKCES. ‘Some sectors make a greater proportional contribution to GVA than others,’ she says. ‘For example, manufacturing and the energy sector, where you’re exporting products, or intellectual property.’ But international competition may also put pressure on UK employment in chemistry that Ni Luanaigh warns could be more serious than individual job loss announcements. ‘Any increase in offshoring jobs to other countries is more likely to have a significant impact than smaller-scale plant closures,’ she says.

Growing slowly

Though UKCES does not normally produce detailed statistics, Ni Luanaigh says that it estimates 30,000 chemical scientists will be employed in the UK in 2014. If the sector expands at the 1.1% growth rate that UKCES forecasts for science and technology professionals, it would reach 32,000 by 2020. But instead, trend-based projections suggest it could be set to grow at a slower rate than related subjects and the national workforce. ‘Based on recent trends, we expect quite strong growth in the proportion of bioscientists and biochemists in the overall workforce, reasonable growth in chemical engineers, and actually a small decline in the proportion of chemists,’ she says. ‘But when we get to these very detailed categories the picture is not always clear as numbers are small and there is a lot of noise in the data.’

Innovation and new business models can emerge from pressure on traditional industries and employers, the RSC Careers service has found while visiting the former Pfizer site in Sandwich. ‘The RSC will always support members when they’re in that environment,’ says Julie Franklin, a careers specialist at the RSC. ‘Even though it sounds like the whole of Sandwich has gone, there are still about 600 staff there. Niche startups are doing specific things in the place of large companies that did everything.’

There aren’t as many available candidates on the job market as a few years ago

Victoria Walker

Yet establishing such companies can be particularly challenging today. ‘The bank squeeze and credit crunch can make it harder to get funds,’ she explains. ‘Then you’ve got the European Reach legislation, whose requirements I think small-to-medium size enterprises, or SMEs, find hard to meet. The RSC has started a service called Enterprise Plus, in the hope that we can help these companies to grow even though the economic climate is not great,’ Franklin says. ‘But SMEs are not a magic wand that will wave over the whole industry and job market, as they have their own problems,’ she cautions.

Victoria Walker, a senior consultant at scientific recruitment specialists CK Science in Chesterfield, UK, sees evidence that recession is easing its grip on the jobs market. She recruits in many sectors, including manufacturing, oil and gas and hazardous waste management, and is the busiest she has been in three years. ‘We are a few years out from the very worst, but some employers are still in the mindset they had then,’ she said. ‘So we have to say “There aren’t as many available candidates on the job market as a few years ago, so you may have to compromise. You probably won’t find someone to work on that salary with that level of experience.”’ 

Walker most often works with small employers, which can demand widely varying expertise. But employers come together most often on demands for one chemist group. ‘The most frequent vacancies that we have are for analytical chemists,’ she explains. ‘They’re needed everywhere: in the pharmaceutical, chemical and food industries, amongst others.’

Valuing experience

Liam O’Connell, CK Science’s operations director, adds that conditions for smaller companies in the many industries that recruit chemists are improving. ‘We are seeing movement within start-ups and SMEs now venture capitalists and investment funds are starting to free up capital,’ he says. ‘Demand for chemists has increased in a number of areas. Within the specialist chemical field there is growing demand as low-volume, high-value, chemical companies are very innovative and constantly looking at new research. Within pharma there is steady demand for chemists but companies look for good experience. More routine roles are slowly disappearing, as the number of large organisations shrinks. Companies prefer either very specialist scientists or good all-rounders.’

Chemistry graduates and postgraduates go into a wide variety of careers

UK recruiters seeking experience may also soon have to compromise, O’Connell adds. ‘There is a big gap in the market for chemists with a couple of years’ experience, and visa restrictions are not helping as good chemists from the Far East and India who had excellent pharma experience are finding it difficult to get visas to work in the UK,’ he adds. ‘This is a bit of a ticking time bomb and we are starting to see a few issues.’

Though there are more positive signs now, the UK economy’s recent struggles have helped make academic, or higher education (HE), research jobs comparatively more attractive.3 That’s according to Robin Mellors-Bourne, research director at career development organisation Crac in Cambridge, UK, which runs Vitae, the national programme supporting HE researchers’ careers.

‘We looked at PhD graduates’ earnings,’ Mellors-Bourne says. ‘Between 2008 and 2010, looking at data three years into work, there had been a switch around. It was always thought that HE research was the poorly paid cousin, but actually many salaries were higher in universities than outside. Effort has gone in to make employment of research staff, such as post-docs, more robust. It also reflects the big picture of government support, ring-fencing science budgets, as opposed to the commercial scientific sector, where things have been tougher.’

Sizing supply

Tom Wagner / Alamy

The number of chemistry students entering university has grown since 2004 – at a higher rate than for all degrees

With chemistry opportunities perhaps growing slowly, the number of people competing for vacancies becomes more important. And student numbers being accepted to study chemistry undergraduate degrees in the UK have grown steadily from 2004–2011, according to the University and College Admission Service, UCAS. Though numbers dropped slightly to 4,508 in 2012, since 2007 chemistry acceptances grew at an average of 3%, compared to 2.5% growth across all degrees.

Emma Smith, who studies the STEM workforce at the University of Leicester in the UK, notes that higher proportions of graduates in physical sciences like chemistry then go on to pursue further study than other subjects. ‘Physical science graduates are no less likely to be unemployed six months after graduation than all university graduates taken together,’ she adds. That unemployment ratio is one reason why Smith is cautious about claims of shortages of STEM graduates. ‘The shortage thesis is not straightforward,’ she says. ‘We are not arguing that there is definitely no STEM shortage but as yet we have found no evidence to show that such a shortage exists.’

UKCES’ Ni Luanaigh comments that the modern STEM skills supply is better balanced than it used to be. ‘Up to 7–8 years ago there weren’t enough science professionals with higher level skills in the workforce,’ she says. ‘That’s changed, partly because we’re getting more people with science qualifications coming out of university. It’s also partly from people who have done a STEM degree staying in STEM related occupations. Now, trade body calls are more about people with the right skills, like laboratory skills, but also teamworking, and translating complex information to a group of non-specialists.’

A STEM by any other name…

Not all STEM graduates choose careers that count as STEM professions. ‘One example is someone who’s done a physics degree and then gone to work in the City,’ Ni Luanaigh says. ‘They’re no longer counted as being in a STEM profession even if they’re using numeracy or maths skills. STEM degrees are a proxy for other attributes that are highly valued. Wage returns for STEM graduates are relatively high, which probably reflects demand in the labour market. Law and occasionally economics wages are higher, mainly because small numbers of people go into exceptionally high-paying city jobs.’

Unless you are really dedicated to get into sciences you will chase the money

Liam O’Connell

O’Connell sees both more chemists graduating and the pull of other careers affecting where they end up. ‘A good deal do not work in laboratory environments once they graduate,’ he says. ‘To get a good job they need to have undertaken a work placement, or done languages. Good chemists can get £18,000–£20,000 upon graduating within science, and £30,000–£35,000 in accountancy or banking, where there is still very high demand for scientists and engineers. Which role would you choose with a huge student debt? Therefore unless you are really dedicated to get into sciences you will chase the money.’

Chemistry’s broad flexibility for new graduates could partly be behind the subject’s increased uptake, according to surveys that Mellors-Bourne conducted for the UK’s Department of Business, Information and Skills.4 ‘We did a STEM-wide survey including a few hundred respondents doing chemistry degrees,’ he says. ‘When choosing their university course, those doing BSc chemistry if anything had less idea what they wanted to do afterwards than many other subjects. They weren’t necessarily going to university because they wanted a chemistry-related job, but more likely that they enjoyed it at school. On the other hand, those doing MChem four year integrated courses were firmer about career ideas.’ But people’s paths differ according to their circumstances, Mellors-Bourne adds. ‘Many people doing STEM degrees, when thinking about what jobs to apply for, could be pursuing both a blue chip graduate scheme, possibly in a bank, and a job in an engineering company,’ he says. ‘If they get two job offers, which will they choose? Many are looking at both options.’

Franklin finds that people pursuing careers in chemistry are currently more likely to do PhDs, but student debt worries could change that. ‘The RSC is behind the idea of apprenticeships, where people work their way up and do vocational qualifications, having some kind of provision from their employer to study,’ she says.

But Franklin underlines that change is now constant in UK chemical employment. Understanding our valuable skills – chemical and otherwise – is especially important in this environment. ‘Once, a degree in chemistry would get you a job for life – now it doesn’t,’ she says, before offering some advice. ‘Always keep an eye on what’s going on, even if you feel secure. People who are very experienced and have been made redundant do well if they are aware of their transferable skills. People who aren’t aware of what they have to offer and want exactly the same job all over again find it difficult. It’s part of our continuing professional development and career development as chemists to know what’s going on outside our immediate jobs. Try to know what’s going on in the jobs market, network effectively and have a wider perspective. People who do that tend to fare better when unfortunate things happen.’

Andy Extance is a science writer based in Exeter, UK