Chemical Engineer

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CAREER PROFILE

Duties: Develop proper lubricants, gasoline, plastics, paint, and rubber to improve a car’s appearance, weight, performance, and reliable operation; design processes used to manufacture cars

Alternate Title(s): Manufacturing Engineer; Project Engineer; Process Engineer; Product Development Engineer; Experimental Engineer; R&D Engineer

Salary Range: $48,450 to $107,520+

Employment Prospects: Fair

Advancement Prospects: Fair

Best Geographical Location(s): Most jobs in the automotive production field are located in Michigan, although automotive plants in other parts of the country also hire Chemical Engineers

Prerequisites:

Education or Training - A bachelor’s degree is required for most entry-level jobs and continuing education is critical to keep abreast of the latest technology

Experience - A solid background in math, chemistry, and other sciences is helpful

Special Skills and Personality Traits - Creativity; inquisitiveness; analytical; detail-oriented; good communication skills

Licensure/Certification - All 50 states require licensure for engineers who offer their services directly to the public

CAREER LADDER

Chemical Engineering Technician  >> Chemical Engineer  >> Chemical Engineering Manager

Position Description

Chemical Engineers in the automotive industry develop proper lubricants, gasoline, plastics, paint, and rubber to improve a car’s appearance, weight, performance, and reliable operation, and design plants and processes used to manufacture cars. Chemical Engineers build a bridge between science and manufacturing, applying the principles of chemistry and engineering to solve problems involving the production or use of chemicals. They design equipment and develop processes for auto manufacturing, plan and test methods of manufacturing products and treating byproducts, and supervise production.

The knowledge and duties of Chemical Engineers overlap many fields. Chemical Engineers apply principles of chemistry, physics, mathematics, and mechanical and electrical engineering. Chemical Engineers also may specialize in the automotive industry in general, or in one field of technology, such as automotive plastics. They frequently specialize in a particular chemical process such as oxidation or polymerization. They must be aware of all aspects of chemical manufacturing and how it affects the environment, the safety of workers, and customers.

Because Chemical Engineers use computer technology to optimize all phases of research and production, they need to understand how to apply computer skills to chemical process analysis, automated control systems, and statistical quality control.

In addition to design and development, many Chemical Engineers work in testing, production, or maintenance. These engineers supervise production in factories, determine the causes of breakdowns, and test manufactured products to maintain quality. They also estimate the time and cost to complete projects.

Chemical Engineers use computers to produce and analyze designs, to simulate and test how a machine or system operates, and to generate specifications for parts. Using the Internet or other communications systems, Chemical Engineers can collaborate on designs with other engineers anywhere in the world. Many Chemical Engineers also use computers to monitor product quality and control process efficiency. Chemical Engineers may spend time writing reports and consulting with other engineers, as complex projects often require an interdisciplinary team of engineers.

Most Chemical Engineers work in office buildings, laboratories, or industrial plants, and some travel a great deal to other plants or worksites. Although many Chemical Engineers work a standard 40-hour week, sometimes deadlines or design problems may require longer hours.

Salaries

Starting salaries are significantly higher than those of college graduates in other fields. Average annual earnings of Chemical Engineers are $73,750, ranging from less than $48,450 to a high of more than $107,520. According to a 2003 salary survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, bachelor’s degree candidates in chemical engineering received starting offers averaging $52,384 a year, master’s degree candidates averaged $57,857, and Ph.D. candidates averaged $70,729.

Employment Prospects

Little or no growth in employment of Chemical Engineers is expected though 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and overall employment is expected to decline. However, although no new jobs due to growth are expected to be created, many openings will result from the need to replace Chemical Engineers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.

Advancement Prospects

Beginning Chemical Engineers usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers and, in large companies, also may receive formal classroom or seminar-type training. As they gain knowledge and experience, they are assigned more difficult projects with greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions.

Some Chemical Engineers move into chemical engineering management or into sales. (In sales, a chemical engineering background enables them to discuss technical aspects and assist in product planning, installation, and use.)

Chemical Engineers may advance to become technical specialists or to supervise a staff or team of engineers and technicians. Some may eventually become engineering managers or enter other managerial or sales jobs.

Many Chemical Engineers obtain graduate degrees in engineering or business administration to learn new technology and broaden their education. Many high-level executives in industry began their careers as engineers. It’s important for Chemical Engineers to continue their education throughout their careers because much of their value to their employer depends on their knowledge of the latest technology. Engineers in high-technology areas, such as advanced chemistry, may find that technical knowledge becomes outdated rapidly.

By keeping current in their field, Chemical Engineers are able to deliver the best solutions and greatest value to their employers. Even those who continue their education are vulnerable to layoffs if the particular technology or product in which they have specialized becomes obsolete. On the other hand, it often is these high-technology areas that offer the greatest challenges, the most interesting work, and the highest salaries. Therefore, the choice of engineering specialty and employer involves an assessment not only of the potential rewards but also of the risk of technological obsolescence. Chemical Engineers who have not kept current in their field may find themselves passed over for promotions or vulnerable to layoffs, should they occur.

Education and Training

A bachelor’s degree is required for most entry-level jobs in chemical engineering and continuing education is critical to keep abreast of the latest technology. College graduates with a degree in a physical science or mathematics occasionally may qualify for some engineering jobs, especially in specialties in high demand. Graduate training is essential for many research and development programs, but is not required for the majority of entry-level engineering jobs.

About 340 colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degree programs in chemical engineering that are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). ABET accreditation is based on an examination of an engineering program’s student achievement, program improvement, faculty, curricular content, facilities, and institutional commitment.

Programs of the same title may vary in content. For example, some programs emphasize industrial practices, preparing students for a job in industry, whereas others are more theoretical and are designed to prepare students for graduate work. Therefore, students should investigate curricula and check accreditations carefully before selecting a college.

Admissions requirements for undergraduate engineering schools include a solid background in mathematics (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus) and science (biology, chemistry, and physics), and courses in English, social studies, humanities, and computer and information technology. Bachelor’s degree programs in chemical engineering typically are designed to last four years, but many students find that it takes between four and five to complete their studies. In a typical four-year college curriculum, the first two years are spent studying mathematics, basic sciences, introductory engineering, humanities, and social sciences. In the last two years, most courses are in engineering, usually with a concentration in chemical engineering.

Some engineering schools and two-year colleges have agreements whereby the two-year college provides the initial engineering education, and the engineering school automatically admits students for their last two years. In addition, a few engineering schools have arrangements whereby a student spends three years in a liberal arts college studying pre-engineering subjects and two years in an engineering school studying core subjects, and then receives a bachelor’s degree from each school. Some colleges and universities offer five-year master’s degree programs. Some five-year or even six-year cooperative plans combine classroom study and practical work, permitting students to gain valuable experience and to finance part of their education.

Special Requirements

All 50 states and the District of Columbia require licensure for engineers who offer their services directly to the public; licensed engineers are called Professional Engineers (PE). Many Chemical Engineers are licensed PEs.

This licensure generally requires a degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program, four years of relevant work experience, and successful completion of a state examination. Recent graduates can start the licensing process by taking the examination in two stages. The initial Fundamentals of Engineering examination can be taken upon graduation; engineers who pass this examination commonly are called engineers in training (EIT) or engineer interns. After acquiring suitable work experience, EITs can take the second examination (Principles and Practice of Engineering exam).

Several states have imposed mandatory continuing education requirements for relicensure. Most states recognize licensure from other states provided that the manner in which the initial license was obtained meets or exceeds their licensure requirements.

Experience, Skills, and Personality

Chemical Engineers should be creative, inquisitive, analytical, and detail-oriented. They should be able to work as part of a team and to communicate well, both orally and in writing. Communication abilities are important because Chemical Engineers often interact with specialists in a wide range of fields outside engineering.

Unions and Associations

Chemical Engineers may belong to professional associations such as the American Institute of Chemical Engineers or the American Chemical Society.

Tips for Entry

1. Contact placement and professional services firms (such as Kelly Services) for nationwide placement and contract positions.

2. Visit Web sites to check out positions for Chemical Engineers, such as the jobs listing on the Web site of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (www.aiche.org) or the American Chemical Society (www.chemistry.org).

3. Mail a résumé to top automotive companies where you would like to work.

4. Attend professional conferences and check out job boards there.

5. Visit your college’s career counseling office for help in identifying companies where you would like to work.

6. Use your contacts. The easiest way to network is to ask someone you already know for the name of someone else. Then when you call, say, “Jane Doe suggested I call you.”

7. Develop electronic networking skills. Visit chat groups or message boards that pertain to your career area. Take special interest in those run by professional associations.

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