The chemicals sector is the backbone of industry. It’s a high-tech, global, multi billion pound business in which technology gives a competitive advantage and companies strive to improve their cost margins. The sector stretches from oil companies through to manufacturers of ‘commodities’ chemicals (eg. methanol and ammonia), polymers, fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
In industrialised countries you’ll find multinational chemicals companies, oil companies and many smaller, independent companies, particularly in fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals. There are also businesses that support them. Engineering contractors (eg Foster Wheeler and Aker Solutions) design and construct new plants and perform the detailed civil, instrument, electrical and mechanical engineering work that is needed to get the equipment for these in place. Technology development organisations (eg. Davy Process Technology and UOP) develop and licence new process technology to make manufacturing chemicals more competitive.
What it’s like working in chemical engineering
The industry is fast-paced and client-focused, though project timescales vary widely. Problems at operational plants often need to be solved in a matter of hours or days, whereas developing new technology and finding commercial outlets for it can take years. The work is stressful but exciting, often with multiple projects on the go at the same time, and suits those who are creative and like a challenge. You can work anywhere in the world, whether permanently, on a secondment or travelling from place to place, for example in a technical sales role. However, it’s not essential to be mobile: roles such as R&D or working in a production role at a plant generally allow you to stay in one place.
Getting a graduate job in chemical engineering
Employers seek graduates who are highly numerate, outgoing, good at teamwork, proactive and able to adapt to different people, from plant operators to MDs. In large companies you’re likely to join a graduate scheme lasting between three and five years, where you’ll work in different areas of the business.