The mess on my desk is all because of chemical engineers; or, more specifically, the varied career paths chemical engineers have taken. From my teacup and takeout container, to the jumble of sticky notes and files, to my laptop, printer, and phone, chemical engineers have influenced every item.
Engineering career consultant and president of Quantum Success Solutions (Tucson, AZ), Alaina G. Levine, says this is because “Chemical engineers’ skill sets are widely applicable, which makes ChEs incredibly valuable across industries.” Levine notes that chemical engineers approach problems in a unique way: “They are trained to see pain points. They have the ability to figure out what the barriers are and create innovations to overcome them.”
The traditional career path
Chemical engineers on a traditional career path may work in the oil and gas, basic or specialty chemicals, or pharmaceutical industries. They may start as research, process development, or production engineers, and have job responsibilities that might include scaling up processes, designing processes and equipment, planning and testing production methods and byproduct treatment, or directing facility operations.
The growing demand
Anthony Actis, an environmental engineer with CDM Smith (Denver, CO), points out: “There is demand for chemical engineers who can excel in critical problem-solving and can work in multidisciplinary teams. There will always be demand for consultants, facility and process engineers, and the myriad of other specialties that ChEs can get into.” For example, chemical engineers are playing a growing role in environmental sustainability, where they develop cleaner ways to produce and use energy, plastics, paint, food products, and more.
Many chemical engineers, whether by choice or circumstance, do not stay in one job for their entire career. Many move into project management, where they are responsible for overseeing engineering project schedules and budgets. Others move into technical sales engineering where they have a hands-on role helping customers solve problems. Still others transition to leadership roles, where they manage people and budgets at a more strategic level. (Read the Career Corner articles “Transitioning to a Career in Sales Engineering,” p. 22, Apr. 2016, and “Transitioning to Management,” p. 68, June 2013, for more information).
Currently a consultant based in Voorhees, NJ, Henry Waldron started his career as an environmental engineer at a Fortune 500 company and progressed to divisional responsibilities for environmental, health, and safety compliance. When Waldron was an undergraduate, a veteran engineer counseled him to prepare for five or six different careers. “Chemical engineers are expected to be flexible enough to apply their skills across many different job descriptions. Over my professional career, I’ve experienced major career shifts. My engineering training combined with my thirst for knowledge allowed me to be successful at each,” says Waldron. He recommends pursuing an advanced degree or becoming a licensed professional engineer (P.E.) as other ways to prepare for a varied career path.
Somnath Basu, vice president of global engineering for Headworks International (Houston, TX), is another chemical engineer who has put his skills to work across various industries. “I had no difficulty moving from a processing engineering role in the petrochemical industry to environmental engineering. The core chemical engineering courses — separations, thermodynamics, reaction engineering, and transport phenomena — empower chemical engineers to move into careers in process software, biotech, and biomedical, among other fields.”
Using chemical engineering as a launch pad to pursue your passion
While Waldron’s and Basu’s experiences have been in industries that traditionally provide careers for chemical engineers, some engineers do stray into completely different fields. Levine worked with a chemical engineer who loved to bake and turned baking chemical engineering-themed cupcakes and pastries into a successful career. While it may not seem that baking draws on chemical engineering skills, it does, in fact, use knowledge of chemistry, and requires problem-solving and creativity. “This engineer combined her skill set with her passion for baking and developed a unique and profitable enterprise. The idea is that you can use chemical engineering as a launch pad for whatever you want to do,” says Levine.
Entrepreneurship and the nontraditional path
Entrepreneurship offers another nontraditional path for chemical engineers, who can either start their own companies or join a startup. “Chemical engineers are trained to draw on resources from a variety of fields. They are adaptable and creative and can thrive in a fast-paced startup environment,” adds Levine. For example, one engineer obtained his master’s degree in chemical engineering and went to work for a supply chain management company, where he performed data analysis and coding. Because of his experience, he was recruited to work for a startup to design specific algorithms and later became head of the company. “This sounds like a typical career path — except that this company became a major online dating service,” notes Levine.
While it is good news that ChE skills are broadly applicable and valuable, it can be daunting for individual engineers to envision their next career step. “The key is to pinpoint problems that get you excited and that you are passionate about solving. Then, find a job that lets you solve those problems,” says Levine.
This article originally appeared in the Career Corner column in the February 2018 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at aiche.org/cep.