Chemical Engineers Overview
Chemical engineers are expected to have average job growth and good job opportunities overall. For most entry-level jobs a bachelor’s degree is required though some research positions a masters degree is needed. Continuing education is a must for chemical engineers due to always-changing technology. Chemical engineers earn some of the highest starting salaries of all college graduates.
Nature of the Work for Chemical Engineers
Chemical engineers use math and science to develop economical solutions to technical problems. They use scientific discoveries for commercial applications that benefit consumers or society.
Many chemical engineers develop new products. During this process they consider functional requirements, design and test components, produce a final design, and evaluate the final product for effectiveness, cost, safety and reliability.
Along with design and development, working in testing, production or maintenance is common for chemical engineers. They may test product quality, supervise factory production or determine the cause of malfunction. Cost and time must also be estimated for projects. Supervisors oversee entire projects or major components.
Chemical engineers must use computers extensively in their work. They generate specifications for parts, test and simulate operations, monitor quality and control effectiveness. Nanotechnology is also bringing new principles to the design process.
Chemical engineers solve problems involved the use or production of chemicals and other projects by applying the principles of chemistry. For large-scale chemical manufacturing chemical engineers design equipment and processes, plan and test manufacturing methods and supervise production. They may work in a variety of industries beyond chemical manufacturing including those producing paper, clothing, food, electronics and energy. Some chemical engineers work in business services, biotechnology and healthcare. Specialties for chemical engineers often focus on a particular chemical process such as polymerization or oxidation, but they may focus on a field such as nanomaterials or the development of a type of product instead. chemical engineers must understand all aspects of chemical manufacturing including the safety of workers and consumers and the environmental effects.
Most chemical engineers work in labs, offices or factories. However some may work on production sites or travel to plants or worksites here and abroad.
Usually a 40-hour workweek is typical for chemical engineers, though deadlines and design standards may cause added pressure and the need for longer hours on occasion.
Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Chemical Engineers
Chemical engineers usually need a bachelor’s degree in engineering for entry-level work. On occasion, employers will hire college graduates with natural science degrees or mathematics degrees. Most degrees are earned in either mechanical engineering, civil engineering, or electrical and electronics engineering. Then, with one engineering degree in hand, they can work in many specialties such as chemical engineering. This flexibility helps workers meet job demands and find the best employment prospects.
Usually chemical engineers take courses in math, science, general engineering, computers and laboratory classes. Social sciences and humanities are also often required.
Beyond the typical 4-year bachelor’s degree, some chemical engineers choose to enroll in 2 or 4-year engineering technology programs. These hands-on programs focus on current issue in engineering principles and prepare students to work in production or practical design rather than jobs focusing on theory and science. Graduates of the 4-year programs often find similar work to chemical engineers with bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering. However, many don’t qualify for licensure and employers view their skills as somewhere between an engineer and a technician.
For faculty or research and development positions chemical engineers need a graduate degree. A masters degree in business administration or a masters degree in engineering can broaden the education or help chemical engineers learn new technology as well.
Some engineering schools partner with 2-year colleges to offer another option for students to complete core credits before attending engineering school. Chemical engineers may also choose a 5 or 6-year program that combines practical work, offering both valuable experience and an opportunity to finance part of the education.
To offer services directly to the public chemical engineers must be licensed as professional engineers (PEs) in all 50 states. To qualify for the license, chemical engineers must graduate from an accredited program as stated by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), complete 4 years of relevant work experience and pass an exam. Even with working, recent grads can start the progress. They take on part of the test upon graduation for an engineer intern title. Then with suitable work experience they can take part to for their license. Many chemical engineers are licensed PEs.
In addition to schooling, chemical engineers must be detail oriented, inquisitive, analytical and creative. Teamwork and communication skills will also be used on the job when working with specialists in a variety of areas beyond engineering. Those working for the Federal government usually must be US citizens and sometimes need security clearance.
When just starting out, many entry-level chemical engineers must work under more experience engineers and complete on the job training in the form of classes and seminars. Once they build skills and experience they can work more independently and take on more challenging projects. Later chemical engineers can advance to become supervisors or technical specialists. Some even become managers or move to sales positions in which they can explain the technical aspects of goods.
A variety of professional certifications are available for engineers and they can be advantageous to those seeking senior technical or managerial positions.
Employment and Job Outlook for Chemical Engineers
About 1.6 million engineers are working, 31,700 of which are chemical engineers. Most engineers work in manufacturing industries or the professional, scientific and technical services industries including architectural, engineering and related services. The government employs 12 percent of engineers and 3 percent are self-employed.
Even though the engineering field as a whole will see average employment growth in the coming decade, chemical engineers are expected to see a decline in employment of 2 percent. Chemical companies should continue to employ chemical engineers to research and develop more efficient professes to improve existing chemicals as well as new chemicals, but employment in the chemical manufacturing industry as a whole is expected to continue to decrease. The best job opportunities will be found in service-providing industries. Chemical engineers should find work in the professional, scientific and technical services, especially for research in energy and nanotechnology and biotechnology, two field that are continuing to develop.
The continued globalization of engineering work will also dampening the employment growth. Engineers around the world will work for less and the rise of the Internet is making outsourcing of jobs for chemical engineers easier.
Continuing education throughout the career is key for chemical engineers. They must stay up to date with the latest technology. Employers rely on chemical engineers to deliver the best solutions using the latest advancements, thus providing the greatest value as an employee. Those chemical engineers who don’t keep current in the field will be at a disadvantage when it comes time for layoffs, promotions or a job hunt.
Earnings and Salary for Chemical Engineers
The median annual salary for chemical engineers is $88,280. The highest 10 percent earned $132,980, the lowest 10 percent earned $56,090 and the middle 50 percent earned between $70,350 and $108,470. Chemical engineers typically enjoy one of the highest starting salaries of all college bachelor’s degree graduates at $64,902 on average.