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Careers in chemical engineering.

The needs of industry demand people with specialized knowledge of the vessels, equipment, and processes necessary to produce chemicals on a large scale.

While it has been the chemists who have invented and synthesized drugs, polymers, fertilizers, and other chemicals that are important in our lives today, it has been the distinct contribution of the chemical engineering profession to manufacture these and other chemicals cheaply, efficiently, and in quantity. Chemical engineering has been a separate engineering discipline since about the turn of the century when the needs of industry demanded people with specialized knowledge of the vessels, equipment, and processes necessary to produce chemicals on a large scale.

The stock and trade of chemical engineers is their knowledge of heat and fluid transfer, kinetics, thermodynamics, unit operations, reactions, and process design. This knowledge is required not only in the chemical industries, but in other industrial arenas as well. "I think the chemical engineering profession holds a tremendous amount of promise and diversity," says Dr. Joseph Cannon, chairman of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Howard University in Washington, DC. According to Dr. Cannon, the process orientation of the profession makes the chemical engineer's knowledge a valued asset in many fields, many of them perhaps not so obvious.

Where Do I Find the Jobs?

A study by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers released in 1990 showed that graduating chemical engineers found employment in a variety of industries and applications including utilities, the environmental field, fuels, materials, pulp & paper, biotechnology, electronics, food/consumer, design, and chemical. However, in that study, called "The 1990 Chemical Engineering Enrollments and Initial Post-Baccalaureate Placements," it was clearly shown that the chemical industry absorbed the greatest percentage of graduating ChEs (about 44 percent). "Many chemical engineers find employment in the traditional areas of chemicals, petroleum, and pharmaceuticals, says Howard's Dr. Cannon. "Although in the past five or six years, more and more chemical engineers are finding work in non-traditional areas such as biotechnology."

Biotechnology has come a long way since its introduction to the scientific community in the 1970s. No longer just an R&D glamour field, there are hundreds of bioengineered compounds that are being brought to market. And it's the expertise of chemical or bioprocess engineers that brings these products out of the lab and into the manufacturing plant for large-scale production.

Biotechnology revenues were $8.1 billion last year, up 28 percent from 1991--and this was in a sluggish economy. And while just ten years ago, making microgram quantities of bioengineered products was considered significant, today scaleup of biotech products is of a much larger magnitude. Some biotechnology facilities are specifying vessels of 40,000-200,000 liters.

Biopharmaceuticals is the largest biotechnology market. There are now 20 therapeutic products and more than 600 diagnostic products on the market in the U.S., according to the management consulting firm, Ernst & Young. By the year 2000, the market for biopharmaceuticals alone is expected to reach $30-$50 billion, says the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Biotechnology and bioprocess engineering are still young fields, and there is still much work to be done, as suggested by the National Academy of Sciences study entitled, "Putting Biotechnology to Work: Bioprocess Engineering." The study calls for improvements in analytical, purification, and process control technology as well as in equipment design. What this means is that chemical engineers may find even more opportunities in bioprocess engineering in the future.

Another area in which increasing numbers of chemical engineers are finding employment is the environmental field. The need for chemical engineers in this area cuts across industries, according to Howard University's Dr. Cannon, who says that most large industries are struggling to reduce pollution, and the training of chemical engineers makes them well suited to this task.

With the New Clean Air Act in place, many industries see cleaning up their processes as a high-priority goal to meet government-mandated emissions standards. The chemical process industries (CPI) in particular have a lot of work to do in reducing pollution. Chemical companies are among the worst polluters according to the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory.

Chemical engineers interested in working in the environmental area can find positions not only in industry, but in consulting firms and government. Dr. Irvin Osborne-Lee heads the Pollution Prevention and Systems Analysis Group at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. According to Dr. Osborne-Lee, the charter of his group is to "reduce the pollutants released into the environment and look for methodologies that can be used at other Department of Energy sites."

Dr. Osborne-Lee has worked at Oak Ridge since 1985, when he received his PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Texas. He says he was encouraged by his high school math and science teachers to consider a career in engineering. With his PhD, Dr. Osborne-Lee could pursue a career in academia and says he has thought about it, but that he likes the "pseudo-academic setting" of a national laboratory.

The additional career options available to chemical engineers with advanced degrees is something that Dr. Joseph Cannon of Howard University likes to stress. "I would encourage students to push on past the bachelor's to the master's and PhD," says Dr. Cannon. "The PhD not only prepares you for teaching, but for many other pursuits as well."

The Howard University professor says he would especially like to see more African-American chemical engineers enter academia, where he says, "we are very underrepresented." "There are only about 15 African-American chemical engineering professors spread over about 140-150 schools," he says.

Employment Outlook and Salaries

Despite an official end to the recession, chemical companies are still recruiting very cautiously according to "1993 Employment Outlook" (Chemical & Engineering News, October 19, 1992). In the chemical and petroleum sectors of the chemical process industry (CPI), there will be fewer jobs and therefore increased competition this year, not unlike last year. The opportunities appear to be brighter with consumer and pharmaceutical companies, which are not so susceptible to recessionary troughs. In any case, the average starting salary for BS-level chemical engineers remains high. According to the College Placement Council's September 1992 survey, the average offer made to BS level chemical engineers was $39,800, a six percent increase over 1991. Only petroleum engineers and pharmacists had higher offers.

The long-term forecast for chemical engineers as well as other science and technical professionals is a matter of public debate now. Analysts recognize the difficulty of forecasting supply and demand many years into the future. One recent Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast attempted to provide alternative scenarios for scientific and technical employment over the period 1990-2005. In the conservative midrange scenario the need for chemical engineers is to grow by 12 percent between 1990 and 2005.

However, whatever the supply and demand forecast, most all analysts agree that efforts to recruit people of color and women in engineering should continue. Dr. Irvin Osborne-Lee, of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, chairs the Minority Affairs Committee of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. The committee, whose work is funded through voluntary contributions of members, has a multi-component program designed to attract underrepresented groups to engineering careers.

Dr. Osborne-Lee's advice to African-American chemical engineering students is to "take as much math and chemistry as you can. Focus on learning, not the grades. Learning is what you get to keep. It's what you know."

Role Model Profile

Paula McCann General Field Engineer Schlumburger Well Services Houma, Louisiana

As a field engineer, Paula McCann goes on location to offshore drilling rigs with data equipment, downhole tools, and a two-person crew. She interprets and relays the measurements of the physical properties of underground formations to clients to help locate, define, and produce oil and gas reservoirs. She recommends other services that will enhance the clients' knowledge concerning their wells.

McCann's fate was sealed at the end of her junior year in high school when her father announced that the only degree he was going to support was a petroleum engineering degree from Texas A&M University. She thought that petroleum engineers were oilfield people from small towns who got dirty trying to find oil. Based on this limited knowledge, McCann knew that she wanted no part of steel toes and hard hats.

Nevertheless, McCann was accepted at A&M and decided to make the best of the situation until she could secretly change her major. To her surprise, she liked the basic engineering classes and stuck with petroleum engineering. After graduation, she accepted a job with Schlumburger.

In four years with the company, McCann has had three promotions. Since Schlumburger promotes from within, she can set her goals to match the company's needs.

According to McCann, more and more women and African Americans are joining Schlumburger each year. The industry has made changes in demographics, and the sophistication of today's sensors and computer systems requires a field engineer to have a broad background in various engineering fields and to enjoy "thinking on their feet," since every job is different.

Her advice to students: "Be versatile. Keep an open mind to different opportunities and avenues. I love the work I am doing but would have never found Schlumburger if it was not for being open-minded."

Wilkins O. Jones is a technical writer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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Title Annotation:Career Reports/Engineering and Computer Science; Annual Jobs Issue; includes role model profile and addresses of organizations
Author:Jones, Wilkins O.
Publication:The Black Collegian
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:The Black Collegian's teaching scholarship program.
Next Article:Cornel West: talking about race matters.

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