What Is Chemical Engineering?
For those with talents in maths and science, chemical engineering is one of the top fields for young professionals today. Chemical engineers convert chemicals and raw materials into practical, usable products, so they play a fundamental role in designing the processes used to create everything from clothing to food to aerospace components.
In recent years, mounting environmental concerns have also driven many chemical engineers into positions focused on so-called ‘Green Chemistry,’ which involves designing products with natural materials in order to reduce their environmental impacts after being used up or discarded. So resource management, compliance with health standards, and environmentally conscious design are three important aspects of the work that chemical engineers perform.
Typically, jobs in the chemical engineering sector fall into one of two basic categories: 1) Process-based industrial roles or 2) Creative research-oriented positions. The first involves designing and monitoring operations processes, usually in manufacturing. The second involves creating new materials or modifying existing materials for novel uses.
Getting Started in Chemical Engineering
Make no mistake about it, chemical engineering is a maths-intensive subject. It is an analytical, problem-solving career that demands a strong aptitude for working with numbers. So the vast majority of students planning to earn degrees in chemical engineering start out taking physics, math’s, or chemistry in their A-levels. At the university level, students can then work toward Bachelors and Masters Degrees in engineering.
Most university courses in the subject area cover a wide range of useful skills that students can apply in many different industries. These include lessons in project management and process flow control, which make Chemical Engineering majors highly sought after by employers in numerous sectors, from accounting to construction.
To get a competitive edge in the job market, many students elect to gain work experience while completing their studies. Internships, summer jobs, and part-time positions are all great ways to learn about the practical realities of the industry while gaining valuable workplace skills and settling into particular specialisms. Many universities offer work-placement programs to help connect students with employers, and it is common for successful placements to lead to full-time positions after graduation.
The Chemical Engineer’s Career Ladder
After graduation, young professionals typically launch careers in chemical engineering with entry-level positions as process engineers or service technicians. Typical industries for chemical engineering jobs include water, energy, food and drink, and pharmaceuticals. Positions often involve industrial plant design, product development, risk analysis, and computer simulation modeling. At this point in their careers, young chemical engineers often work on projects that span many duties and areas of emphasis, while they learn which specialisms interest them most. Entry-level jobs in the sector are relatively high paying, and recent graduates typically earn about £28,000.
Having gained experience developing and monitoring process flow, chemical engineers can then progress to roles in leadership within Project Engineering Management. There are positions in risk management, operations, and consultancy. By this stage of career development, chemical engineers will have settled into a particular area of emphasis, and their salaries will have risen substantially along with their expertise. In 2012, the median salary for chemical engineers in the UK was £53,000, while those working in the highest paid industry—oil and gas—earned an average of £70,000 annually.
As a gateway to further career advancement, many engineers work to attain Chartered Status: an internationally recognised professional qualification earned on the basis of both on-the-job experience and demonstrated expertise. Chartered Status is a necessary prerequisite for most jobs in the upper tiers of the sector, and engineers who have earned the qualification typically earn about £10,000 more each year than their peers without chartered status. What’s more, many companies offer developmental programs to support employees as they work toward chartered status. Salaries for the highest paid positions for chemical engineers can exceed six figures.
Engineering Employment Outlook
Today, chemical engineering is one of the most stable and lucrative employment sectors in the UK. As an extremely technical field, and one that is in high demand by companies in many different industries, both public and private, there is a constant demand for qualified professionals. So chemical engineers in most industries enjoy a plentitude of inter-industry advancement opportunities and upward mobility. Jobs in the sector pay well, usually offer generous support packages, and show strong long-term growth. So although the overall number of university applications has fallen in recent years, the number of incoming chemical engineering majors spiked about 4% in 2013 in response to increased demand in the job market.
Perhaps the best aspect of a career in chemical engineering is the fact that professionals have a high degree of flexibility within the sector. Chemical engineers are needed in manufacturing, environmental, research, and even creative industries. The skills they learn allow them to pair technical expertise with whatever other ancillary interests they happen to have in other fields. So while the courses may be challenging, the professional benefits make the effort well worth it.