Last fall I was invited to speak to some chemistry students at a local university. Being an industry guy, I was perceived as having some “special” insights into getting a job after college.  While I might have been a successful job hunter when I was less than 40, the odds got much longer after that transition to middle age. More on that in another post.

While I cannot outline the exact path to employment- you really can’t do that- I was able to talk about some of the lesser known jobs that  a chemistry degree will enable.  They are not sexy R&D jobs nor are they upper level executive jobs either. I’m not a pharma guy, thankfully, so my comments do not pertain to that bizarre and brutal world of pharmaceuticals.

The jobs I pointed out are critical to the conduct of manufacturing. They are jobs that one might not necessarily get at the entry level either.

So here are some of the jobs I mentioned.  Environmental health and safety- EH&S. Industry needs people who understand the regulatory situation relating to worker safety and to the environment.  EH&S is also concerned with hazardous waste management.  Expertise in this area is critical to the daily operation of any chemical plant.  This is a good place for an entry level and an experienced chemist to enter because the position typically requires a BS degree and greater than high school knowledge of chemicals and hazards.

Purchasing is an area where a chemist can play an important role in the operation of a plant.  Somebody has to source and buy the chemical raw materials. In general, there is spot buying and contract buying. Spot purchasing offers freedom on the upside but possible instability and higher pricing on the down side.  Purchasing under contract offers a better footing for negotiation and long term stability, but may lock the buyer into minimum volume and a firm price schedule. If demand for your product wavers, being locked into a supply agreement can be a problem if you have agreed to take a set volume.

There are various levels of purchasing positions.  At one end is the purchasing of non-chemical products.  Don’t need a chemist to do this.

On the other end is what is called the supply chain (or procurement) manager. Here is where you need to have a chemist.  This person is charged with assuring that there is an uninterrupted supply of feedstocks to the production facility. They are also tasked with assuring that the vendors meet some basic level of QA/QC and are able to document the whole spectrum of quality assurance. That is, does the vendor have the mechanisms in their business structure to assure not only the flow of product out the door, but also that the process is stable and produces material of the proper quality? Here,  management of change is is very important. A supply chain manager also makes site visits and conducts quality audits of vendors.

Business development and sales is an arena that makes good use of chemists and engineers. The most highly prized type of sales and business development person is the fabled “rainmaker”.  Business development is an activity where a manufacturer makes a connection with a customer who needs some particular material manufactured.  The goal in business development is, not uncommonly, to bring a new product into being.

In the chemical world (outside of pharma) there are commodity chemcials and there are custom and fine chemicals.  Commodity chemicals are those for which there are more than one manufacturer and the difference is mostly in the pricing and availability.  A chemical that is commoditized is one in which the volumes are often high and the margins are thin. Think ethylene, sulfuric acid, BTX, etc.

Commodity chemical producers need sales people too, but their job description is more related to account management and sales. If you dig being a sales rep, go for it.

A business development manager is someone who tries to match technological capability to the needs of the customer for more specialized products. This is teh person who looks at the chemistry and SWAGs a price based on paper chemistry and a spreadsheet.  This is often high pressure work. A bad quote may spell trouble for you. Too high and the customer balks. Too low and you may be faced with the wrong expectations by the customer.  Above all, a good business development person manages expectations.

Quality control/assurance is another position for a chemist. This is for someone who is highly organized and is fond of recordkeeping. This is the world of specifications and certificates of analysis, or certs. The QC person is responsible for making sure the company does what it says it will do in regard to product quality. It is a gatekeeper position and it can be a real hot seat. QA/QC can hold up a shipment or it can prevent the plant from using a raw material. It is a powerful post and those who hold it are not universally loved.

Process safety- what I presently do- is a job description wherein chemists are charged with determining whether or not a process is safe to execute. It is a hybrid job- part synthesis, analysis,and P-chem. It requires quite a bit of imagination in that you have to try to imagine possible failure modes and often obscure ways of testing materials for the potential to release hazardous energy.

Inventory management is central to the operation of any manufacturing unit. It is critical to receive raw materials both physically and in the accounting system. Materials have to be stored in designated locations and have to be staged for use according to a master schedule. While is is less common to find chemists here, I suppose it is possible. Often this position is filled by someone who is familiar with the manufacturing environment.

Related to inventory management is shipping and receiving. In order to load hazardous material onto a truck for transport, one must have training in the regulations pertaining to the transport of hazardous goods. In addition to the regs, there is training in operating in a hazardous environment and emergency response. Again, not a lot of chemists will end up here, but it is a job description in the chemical industry.

Finally, there is the possibility of working as a plant operator. You can find a large variety of people operating in a chemical plant. I know ex-firefighters, ex-military, biologists, farm boys, heavy equipment operators, construction contractors, and people who have worked in chemical plants all their adult lives. It is hard work. You have to work on the plant floor wearing PPE that is often uncomfortable, or perhaps sit at a terminal in a control room monitoring a process train.  But if you like working with your hands on machines and electronics in manufacturing, it may be job for you.

If your desire is to be a captain of industry- a CEO or President, then you should forget lab work and go into business development or sales, or even accounting. Anything related to the accumulation of sales dollars, customer service, plant startup, and deep finance is crucial to someone handing you the keys to the corporation.

Yes, I know that there are a few scientists who have ascended to the top, but they are the exception. You must be fluent with the ways of money and show a record of rainmaking.

The other possibility for a chemist is to join a startup venture. But this is hard to find since most startups are begun with a core group of people who know each other. At some point, however, they will begin to recruit skilled people to fit particular slots. I have no real advice to offer here except that startups are very risky. At some point you may be asked to invest more than just time.