High Starting Salaries, Meaningful Work…but Few Takers

Although starting salaries are high and career paths plentiful, newly graduated chemical engineers are scarce. Only 4.5% of baccalaureate degrees were for engineering in 2008 (0.3% for chemical engineering), and statistics have not changed much in North America. In contrast, engineers made up 20% and 12% of graduating classes in Asia and Europe, respectively.

Dr. John Anderson, president of the Illinois Institute of Technology since 2007, wants to turn things around. Clearly, high pay alone isn't enough to attract new students to the profession. Dr. Anderson asserts that a new promotion strategy to young people and improved curriculum in universities is part of the solution.

Join the discussion

Join the VLS on Thursday, December 20th at 9pm EST for Dr. Anderson's keynote address, "Changing the Way We Promote the Profession," to gain insight into the trends and suggested strategy for recruiting the next generation of chemical engineers. Join the meeting here.

Update for Young Professionals: There will be a talk by Neil Yeoman at 8pm EST, the third installment in his Career Stories series. Join using the meeting link above and stay for the keynote afterwords.

If you missed last month's keynote, Sustainability through Life Cycle Management by Dr. Mary Ann Curran, you can find the recording on the VirtuAIChE website under Resources & Links.


NoahChemE's picture

Young Professionals join the conversation 1 hour before Dr. Anderson's talk to hear third installment of Career Stories by Neil Yeoman, AICHE Fellow. Same link will work for both, YP meeting starts at 8 eastern time, general meeting (with Dr. Anderson) starts at 9 eastern.

Matt's picture

The statistics on Asia and Europe seem way off. Do you have a source?

Kelly H.'s picture

I agree, are the statistics just describing percentages of total engineering majors in those continents?

GwenBee's picture

Matt and Kelly, the statistics for Asia and Europe are for all engineering disciplines. Thanks for catching that. My article should say: in 2008, 4.5% of baccalaureate degrees in the US were in engineering and only 0.3% of the total were for chemical engineering. In Asia, 20% and in Europe, 12% of baccalaureate degrees awarded were for engineering disciplines. Statistics were provided by Dr. Anderson.

Robert S's picture

I am currently working in China and was discussing this subject today with an American friend that has been here for 20 years. He thought it would be a no-brainer that people entering college would be going into engineering and was dumbfounded when I explained the numbers of how few engineers are coming out of the US. I think there are some significant cultural influences. When I tell people in Asia and other non-North American locations that I am a chemical engineer they are impressed and think I am in a valued profession. When I tell non-engineering people in the US I more often get a glassy stare and a comment about how I must not have had any fun in college. The other is that while engineering provides a solid average salary, there is not enough upward mobility for some people. I found that in my graduating class many got the degree and worked in something else. Doctors, finance, patent law - more flash than an engineer stuck in an office. Or they work for a few years, get an MBA, and move into something else. We not only have to recruit engineering students, but convince them that it is profession worth sticking with.

Over the least decade, the number of students studying chemical engineering in the UK has more than doubled. There are currently a record number of chemical engineering students at UK universities. Applications have more than doubled too during the same period. Rewind a decade and the picture was far from rosy in the UK, applications were down and student intake was dwindling with each passing year - at one point less than 1000 students were enrolling each year. The turnaround has in a large part been down to the "whynotchemeng" campaign. The concept was remarkably simple and could be replicated elsewhere and within just about any discipline.

One of the most important features - which remains true today - is that the campaign is funded by the professional body (IChemE), industry employers and chemical engineering departments at UK universities, all of which have a vested interest in securing the talent pool. Broadly speaking the campaign is about four things: information literature for students, teachers, career advisors and parents; a network of volunteers that go into local schools and colleges to talk to interested students about the benefits of a career in chemical engineering, a supporting website - <a href="http://www.whynotchemeng.com," rel="nofollow">www.whynotchemeng.com,</a> and a presence at all of the key exhibitions and fairs. A fifth strand is emerging and that is a presence on key social media platforms.

Just about every chemical engineering student in the UK opts into IChemE membership and we know from the data we collect that around 1 in 4 are studying chemical engineering because of whynotchemeng. And whilst the campaign was launched to deal with a specific UK problem, we regularly send campaign materials all over the world and our second most common website visitor location is the US. We&#039;re often approached about a national whynotchemeng campaign elsewhere or taking the whole thing global. It makes sense to take something that has worked so well in one part of the world and see whether it could be applied elsewhere. And just to keep this in context, chemical engineering graduate salaries in the UK are the third highed nationally - trailling medicine and dentistry. Matt Stalker IChemE Head of communications, training and events mstalker@icheme.org

In the past it was very difficult for a student to learn about chemical engineering - the subject isn&#039;t taught in school so students would have been relying on a well-informed careers library. Realistically, when a school is expected to cover every career option going, it&#039;s unlikely that chemical engineering would&#039;ve ranked high on the priority list since a relatively small number of students would enquire about the subjects. At the risk of sounding like the IChemE PR guy (which I am!) whynotchemeng has really made a difference by bringing together industry, universities and the Institution to make sure that every UK secondary school has access to accurate careers information, to make sure that every time a UK school wants a chemical engineer to come and talk to students, we can manage that request etc.

We&#039;ve got away from everyone doing their own little bit by bringing the organisation (and funding) to a central point. IChemE is ideally placed to facilitate all of this whereas industry is better placed to lead on the funding. The figures speak for themselves - the campaign has worked and continues to work. The internet has also made a huge difference so it has got much easier for students to find out chemical engineering careers info via sites like whynotchemeng.com.