When I graduated with a degree in chemical engineering in 2003, I already had a job waiting for me in Fort McMurray, Alberta. It was cold there at 56 degrees north of the equator, but the experience was worth it. I became a process engineer in a bitumen upgrader, and the starting salary was almost double the national average. Later I moved south to work in a pulp mill. Here's what I've learned.
We use engineered products every day
What do these products have in common: toothpaste, running shoe soles, paper, and ketchup? Chemical engineers are involved in the commercial production of all of them. Other common engineered products most people take for granted:
- Motor oil and gasoline
- Tofu hot dogs
- Beer and wine
- Artificial flavoring
Chemical engineers are highly employable
I can easily find a new job in a chemical plant, or take a different career path. Engineering work also gave me a full complement of transferable business skills, which I expanded by studying management accounting. All over the world, chemical engineers find second careers in business management, finance, insurance, national defense, project management, technical writing, and software design.
Reduction is better than recycling
It's better to reduce consumption than to use resources to make and recycle things we don't need. I've learned to look at the whole lifecycle of a product to determine its impact. Recycling is a good thing. However, the recycling process consumes money, energy, and resources like fuel for the trucks and transport, electricity for equipment like pumps and conveyor belts, and water for flotation and separation. Similarly, a new electric car may not burn gasoline, but it still has a big environmental impact. It's made from metals that have to be mined and refined, plastics derived from oil, and parts shipped from factories overseas. Fuel and resources are consumed in every step.
How to shop smart
Thanks to my career, I can ignore hype and separate fact from marketing fiction. If a product is labelled "green," I'm skeptical. I'll read the label to understand what's in it and how it works. I know that bamboo fabrics are actually viscose from cellulose fibers in bamboo, produced using a chemical process. I've also discovered that some "green" cleaners have the same ingredients as regular cleaners - the only difference is the packaging, and the higher price.
How to solve problems
I learned to solve nearly any problem by:
- Defining the problem
- Identifying known facts and constraints
- Listing assumptions
- Testing and analyzing
- Identifying and comparing solutions
- Choosing the best alternative
I've used this to figure out what type of heat exchanger will work best, to diagnose plant operation problems, and even to choose a new car.