by David Treff
Some time ago, when I first began using the AIChE’s Discussion Central, I read through the “STEM shortage?” discussions. One AIChE member directed attention to a 2014 article, “Where the STEM Jobs Are (and Where They Aren’t),” comparing current needs in different STEM disciplines, with some STEM disciplines appearing to be in higher demand than others. This particular discussion had me wondering what the job outlook looks like for chemical engineers for the foreseeable future. Interestingly, the US Occupational Outlook Handbook projects chemical engineering jobs will grow by 8% for 2016-2026  which is higher than the 4% growth in general engineering employment predicted for 2014-2024.
ChemE job growth may be higher than for other engineering positions due the degree mass-produced products – such as pharmaceutical drugs, plastics, glass, automobile parts, and rubbers – require chemical engineering capabilities. So, there will likely continue to be a need for people who can develop and understand chemical production processes for the foreseeable future.
The chemical industry is an industry that adapts to changing technology. Businesses also incorporate practices from other businesses to adapt to change. New chemical engineering graduates today will likely be required to apply concepts outside traditional engineering in their first career, or some may obtain their first job in nontraditional roles that could involve software design, programming, or computer databases. According to the US Occupational Outlook Handbook, jobs for Computer and Information Research Scientists are expected to grow by 19% for 2016-2026 , which indicates many different businesses, including chemical businesses, have a strong interest in the potential for data science, software, and IT.
Today, people have easier, and less expensive, methods for storing large amounts of data than they did a decade or two ago, in part due to the growing use of cloud computing technologies. Elizabeth Earley describes cloud computing as “using a computer service powered by a cluster of hardware somewhere in the world and delivered to your terminal over the internet.” Earley further states, “People typically make use of the system through a particular service or application such as Gmail, DropBox, or Facebook.”
Companies typically purchased or built their own data storage hardware or facilities. This practice is changing across multiple industries as companies increasingly rely on the cloud. Chemical companies are part of this evolution, moving to the cloud to store massive quantities of data from chemical facilities and operations. For instance, Seán Ottewell of Dow Chemical Company pointed out that they started using cloud technology a few years ago and it has saved the company $85 million. 
What does this mean for ChemE jobs? According to Micklem at KBC, analytics and data science skills are very valuable in the evolving chemical industry. He says, “In a recent KBC survey across refining and petrochemicals, operations leaders across industry were asked to rate the importance of skills over the next five years for achieving operational excellence. Analytics and data science was ranked the joint second most important skill, behind traditional engineering.”
The growing use of cloud and other computer technologies may cause engineering jobs to require skillsets other than traditional engineering. ChemEs from my senior year, for example, took jobs with titles such as “Software Engineer,” “Systems Engineer,” “Data Warehouse Developer,” and “IT Consultant” after graduation. These positions sound quite different than traditional chemical engineering jobs. On the other hand, some of my other former classmates went on to roles more closely related to traditional chemical engineering: “Process Engineer,” “Scientist,” “Olefin Scheduler,” “Production Engineer,” and “Wastewater Engineer.” After I earned my degree, my first experience was in a test engineering role.
Though chemical companies may increasingly demand skillsets from other disciplines such as data science, a chemical engineer’s skills are highly applicable in a variety of different job paths. During my time as an undergraduate, there were classes, coursework, and lab assignments where I applied principles in mechanical and electrical engineering in addition to chemical engineering. There were also assignments where I had to overcome challenges by applying my computer programming skills or by using complex computer software. Chemical engineers, who usually possess strong computer skills, occasionally fill roles typically open for software engineers or data scientists. Chemical engineers also possess strong problem solving skills and have a very large scope of knowledge over various engineering and scientific topics which would be valued in several different career fields. Based on this, I would say there is a promising future ahead for chemical engineers in both traditional and non-traditional career paths.
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2018, April 13). https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/chemical-engineers.htm
 Employment outlook for engineering occupations to 2024. (2016, October 06). https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2016/employment-outlook-for-engineering-occ...
 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2018, April 13). https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-and...
 Earley, E. What is cloud computing? https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/what-is-cloud-computing/
 Ottewell, S. (2018, January 15). Chemical Makers Embrace the Cloud. https://www.chemicalprocessing.com/articles/2018/chemical-makers-embrace...
 Micklem, D. (2017, October 26). How are big data and cloud technologies shaping future careers in the energy and chemical industry? https://www.kbc.global/insights/blog/how-are-big-data-and-cloud-technolo...