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On the Road to Recovery?

With about 31,000 companies in Europe and 1.848 million employees, the chemical industry is a major job provider. Only a fraction of chemical-industry employees are research chemists, but the industry relies heavily on researchers to keep pushing ahead with innovative products.

In the past few years, employment in Europe's chemical industry has declined. Faced with low demand and high raw-material prices, chemical companies cut costs--and jobs--to keep their corporate heads above water. Lately, the trend is slowing; the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) estimates that European chemical-industry employment declined by only 1.3% in 2005, compared to 3% the year before. In their latest report, CEFIC notes many signs of economic recovery for the chemical industry, as well as the renewed optimism of chemical producers. That should be good news for young chemists.

"Overall, the number of people working in R&D has been more or less steady," says Thomas Gerlach, head of media relations at Ciba Specialty Chemicals in Switzerland. Germany-based BASF Aktiengesellschaft, too, has continued to hire on average 80 chemists a year, but "we will increase to 100 hires a year" to cover new areas such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, and energy management, says Rainer Bürstinghaus, head of BASF's scientist and engineer recruiting services. At the German company Bayer, "the number of new employees in the last 5 years is not very high, but is increasing," says Dirk Pfenning of Bayer's Human Resources Services. Bayer plans to add more than 50 new chemists in Germany in 2006.

Some other companies are hiring more aggressively. According to Marco van der Sanden, recruitment manager at DSM, a Dutch specialty chemicals company, in 2005, the company doubled the number of chemists it hired, compared to the previous year, and intends to do so again in 2006. The growing need for R&D staff has been fueled by the company's move toward higher value chemical products. "Once you start looking at … new fields as a company, you need good people. … We will be in large demand for chemists and biotechnologists," says van der Sanden.

Disciplines and Jobs

Opportunities and job descriptions can differ markedly by discipline. Here's a snapshot of the types of research jobs at some major European chemical companies:

Organic chemists. At the Dutch specialty chemicals company DSM, two-thirds of 2300 R&D workers are chemists, many with a specialization in organic chemistry, according to Ellen de Brabander, DSM's vice-president of corporate technology. Organic chemists at DSM work on new active ingredients for the pharmaceutical industry, additives for the food industry, and raw materials for a range of manufacturing applications. At the German chemical giant Bayer, organic chemists, who make up a substantial fraction of the company's 8600 scientists, are seeking new active ingredients for pharmaceuticals, herbicides, and high-performance materials. Switzerland-based Ciba Specialty Chemicals employs chemists--30% of its 1600-strong R&D workforce--to synthesize compounds intended to confer protection, color, or strength to automotive, textile, and paper-industry products.

Medicinal chemists. Many chemical companies have found the past years difficult, but pharmaceutical companies have continued to fare well, and so have their employees. At AstraZeneca in the U.K., for example, R&D employment has grown steadily from about 10,000 people in 2001 to the current figure of 12,000, of which "the majority are from a chemistry background," says human resources spokesperson Jez Chance. Medicinal chemists with backgrounds in organic chemistry also find work at companies such as Bayer, developing active ingredients for human and animal health, as well as personal-care products.

Polymer chemists. BASF, a leading producer of plastics, has a strong base in polymer research. The majority of the company's 7000 R&D staff are organic and polymer chemists, says Rainer Bürstinghaus, head of BASF's scientist and engineer recruiting services. Their job is to design materials for the automobile, construction, and telecommunications industries, along with custom components with functionality specified by the cosmetics, pharmaceutical, and nutrition industries.

Inorganic chemists. Inorganic chemists develop a range of applications, and their numbers are growing. BASF employs synthetic inorganic chemists to develop new catalysts and pigments. At Rhodia, a French specialty chemical company with nearly 1500 R&D employees, inorganic chemists develop silica-based products for thickening toothpaste, among other applications. Employment opportunities are also growing for inorganic chemists who specialize in nanotechnology.

Computational chemists. Pharmaceutical companies need computational chemists to help with drug discovery by screening compounds in silico for biological activity, selectivity, and safety. "We think it is going to be a growth area for a while," says Jez Chance of AstraZeneca.

Analytical chemists. Of all chemists, analytical chemists probably work in the widest range of companies. Bayer employs analytical chemists in every research or production unit, often as a central lab, according to Dirk Pfenning of Bayer's Human Resources Services, who adds that Bayer sometimes doesn't get enough applications for special analytical areas. As DSM transformed itself from a petrochemical producer to a specialty chemicals company, analytical chemists assessed industrial processes and developed specialized analytical methods. DSM needs more analytical chemists, too.

Employers' needs
Chemical companies mainly recruit at the Ph.D. and postdoc levels for R&D jobs, especially if they produce high-value chemicals. In most companies, Ph.D.s are expected to manage a project and two or three technicians straightaway, so doing a postdoc, preferably overseas, before joining is often recommended. "In some cases, they are very young, and to manage an international project when they are 30 years old, they need experience from abroad," says BASF's Bürstinghaus. In some companies, the point of entry for young chemists is an industrial postdoc. "They will have a contract for 6 months to a couple of years," says Gerlach of Ciba Specialty Chemicals. Depending on how well they do, they may then be offered a permanent position.

In addition to solid and relevant training, especially important in the chemical industry is the ability to work in multidisciplinary teams, which requires "being able to communicate, to explain what it is all about to others," says Ellen de Brabander, DSM's vice president of corporate technology. An understanding of business needs and market demands and the ability to use chemistry to achieve these ends are also keys.

In terms of experience, requirements are mixed. "We need people who already have lab experience in other companies," says de Brabander, because "these are crucial in developing new applications for our products." But other companies, such as Rhodia, a French specialty chemicals company, and Bayer, recruit mainly straight from university. "We take fresh people direct from universities in 90% of the cases," says Pfenning.

Often, R&D positions are only a landing pad in chemical companies; once hired, a chemist's opportunities are limited only by his or her career ambitions and the company's needs. "We pay a great importance to personal qualities. This is not a short-term need; we envision the person over the next 8 to 10 years," says Bernard Michelangeli, human resources director for research, technology, and development at Rhodia. "While we do recruit a lot of chemists into R&D, chemistry is a very portable skill set," says Jez Chance of AstraZeneca in the U.K. "We have chemists in lots of different parts of our business."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe.

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