Investment in people is crucial to the chemical industry's future.

Investment in people and skills is crucial to the long-term sustainability and profitable growth of the chemical industry. A successful industry needs the right skills in the right places. The UK chemical industry has an ageing workforce and action is needed now to ensure the industry has the people and skills it needs in 10 to 15 years time. 

The Chemical Industries Association and trade unions recently voiced their concerns, saying: 'In the future the industry will need fewer but more highly skilled and technology-literate employees who will be expected to operate more flexibly and across existing skills boundaries.' The responsibility for providing these employees lies with the industry.  

The issue is not declining student numbers. This year 17.3 per cent more students opted for a chemistry degree course than last year, compared with a rise of 8.4 per cent across all subjects. These figures don’t support the concern that there are not enough students studying chemistry. The problem is that many are choosing other careers. 

Recruitment of young chemists needs to be addressed. The chemical industry needs to promote itself as an employer that attracts the best students by offering stimulating and rewarding careers. The focus should not just be on attracting graduates. The image of technical jobs and the status of non-university courses also needs to be raised to ensure the industry really does have the right skills at the right levels. Rewarding careers must include an element of continuing professional development. This should include softer skills, such as networking and management training, as well as the essential technical skills. 

But many companies still need to be persuaded of the benefits to the bottom line of training their staff. Case studies, showing best practice, could be produced by one of the organisations working on the skills issue, as an education tool for businesses.  

One group looking at skills is the Chemistry Leadership Council (CLC), which was set up in 2003 to address the challenges of sustainable development and improving the industry’s reputation. Its vision, published this summer, includes setting priorities for skills development and it has a team working on the issue. By the time this is published, the UK chemicals industry will have gathered to discuss the challenges posed by the CLC’s vision.

The industry’s sector skills council, Cogent (one of 24 employer-led taskforces set up for companies to voice their skills needs), focuses on the issue. It is currently working on a skills agreement for the sector. This will map out what skills the chemical industry needs its workforce to have and how Cogent and employers will work with key funding partners to secure the necessary supply of training. Cogent is currently analysing the data it has gathered and will discuss the emerging themes with industry before drawing up a final plan next spring.

The specific skills gaps will become clearer over the coming months, and companies must get involved to make sure their needs are met.

Karen Harries-Rees, editor