What Skills Do Chemical Engineers Need Now?

Fifty years ago this month, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. This science fiction epic follows a spacecraft bound for Jupiter with the sentient computer HAL 9000. While the movie dealt with issues such as existentialism, human evolution, and extraterrestrial life, it also foreshadowed the widespread use of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) in everyday life.

Fast forward to today. A McKinsey & Co. study reports that about 30% of the activities in 60% of all occupations could be automated (1). This means that many workers will find themselves working alongside rapidly evolving machines, pushing human counterparts to keep pace.

The role of AI in chemical process industries

This trend will no doubt filter into the chemical process industries (CPI). In a recent AIChE Job Board posting, a startup sought a petrochemical process engineer for a team whose goal was to disrupt the process industries with breakthrough machine learning technologies. Job requirements included learning the principles of the company’s machine learning technology, applying them to appropriate points in the process, and evolving the machine learning models via chemical process understanding.

Chemical engineers have long worked on cross-disciplinary teams, but AI and automation provide a new twist. “I don’t believe chemical engineers of the future need to be experts in robotics, AI, etc. They need to have knowledge of these disciplines, but don’t need to be the subject matter experts,” says Joseph Alford, who retired from Eli Lilly and Co. and coauthored “Preparing Chemical Engineering Students for Industry” (CEP, Nov. 2017). He adds, “The combination of chemical engineers, electrical engineers, and computer scientists can solve just about any automation, AI, robotic, or online analytical problem that comes along.”

Although the future may appear murky, what is clear is that as chemical engineers today, we must remain curious about the evolving environment and ready to adapt to it by adding new skills to our repertoire.

Core skills applied in new ways

ChEs must still apply chemical engineering concepts, including mass and energy transfer, unit operations, stoichiometry, and fluid dynamics. These skills, however, can be applied in new ways. “The CPI are changing and now include more biochemical processes, which are often run as batch processes,” writes Alford in his CEP article. He adds, “While economic evaluation remains critical, designs proposed in industry must also be evaluated based on safety, environmental impact, controllability, ease of scaleup, and risk.”

Proficiency in regulatory requirements is also essential. “One area where ChEs can be the difference in the current global environment is to have a background, or at least get basic training, on the regulatory aspect of water and air emissions and general waste requirements,” says Randy Waskul, Global Director of Health, Safety, and Environmental (HSE) at Birla Carbon (Marietta, GA).” He explains that “This will help the engineer understand that beyond the scientific bounds of their profession are legal and societal bounds that may constrain their efforts.”

A regional engineer job posted by a waste-to-energy processor illustrates the need for both technical and regulatory skills. The position requires experience in steam plant operations and the ability to monitor and optimize plant performance. The candidate is also required to coordinate with local management to ensure compliance with internal technical standards and assist with annual compliance submittals.

Beyond technical skills

Leadership, coaching, and change management abilities remain important in the 21st century, especially as engineers rise through the ranks. A recent job posting for a process safety manager is indicative, stating the position requires a professional who could “provide leadership and direction to achieve process safety excellence, ensure direct reports are supported and aligned with department vision and goals, and maintain and improve the change management process.”

Some skills will always be key to job success. “Good grammar, legible writing, the ability to write prose, interpersonal skills, and presentation skills are just as important today as they were in the 1970s,” notes John Sharland, a retired chemical engineer (Bridgewater, MA).

The role of continuous learning

Individuals need a creative mindset and the mental elasticity to invent, discover, or create something valuable for society, writes Joseph Aoun, Northeastern Univ. president, in the book Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. A key part of preparing people for the future is to give them tools that will help them adapt to change.

Experienced chemical engineers must embrace lifelong learning, whether it is by attending graduate-level courses, in-house training, or online continuing education programs. “I think it’s important for chemical engineers to expand their learning in the direction they would like their career to proceed,” says Ronald Shewchuk, Director of Continuous Improvement at Air Liquide Americas (Chester Springs, PA).

Although the future may appear murky, what is clear is that as chemical engineers today, we must remain curious about the evolving environment and ready to adapt to it by adding new skills to our repertoire.

1. McKinsey & Co, “What’s Now and Next in Analytics, AI, and Automation,” www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/digital-disruption/whats-now-and-next-in-analytics-ai-and-automation (May 2017).

This article originally appeared in the Career Corner column in the April 2018 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at aiche.org/cep.


Ikezuora Echezona's picture

This article is quite fascinating and brain challenging. I wish every Chemical engineer in the globe can see this.


good and fantanstic that point out where and what a chemical engineer s should focus

HAN LI's picture

the chemical engineer should have a wide range of knowledge

Joshua Idumijie's picture

Thank you so much, this was quite detailed and it has helped me chart a mental picture of my development path.