Education and Training: Bachelor's degree or higher
Salary: Median—$76,770 per year
Employment Outlook: Good
Definition and Nature of the Work
Chemical engineers work in the production of chemicals and many other products that require chemical processing. They use the theories and laws of chemistry to develop industrial chemical processes. They generally build on the findings of research chemists, who work with small amounts of materials in laboratories. Chemical engineers are concerned with the design, construction, operation, and marketing of equipment that can reproduce on a large scale the processes or products developed by chemists. Chemical engineers work with industrial chemical processes to help produce a large variety of goods. They are often assisted by chemical technicians.
Chemical engineers need to have knowledge of not only chemistry and physics but also of mechanical and electrical engineering. In some cases they specialize in one area, such as oxidation, pollution control, or the production of plastics. Sometimes a chemical engineer's title reflects his or her area of specialization. For example, some chemical engineers are known as plastics engineers.
Chemical engineers work in many industries, including those that produce chemicals, petroleum, and electronic products. In some cases these products are sold to other industries that use them to make other products ranging from fine textiles to automobile tires. Chemicals are used in the processing and treatment of many of the foods we eat, much of the water we drink, and many of the clothes we wear. Chemical engineers develop the processes and design the factories that make it possible to bring such products to consumers.
The work of chemical engineers may begin after chemists have developed a basic product or process, such as a new kind of paint or a new way of refining coal to make synthetic natural gas. The engineer will then solve the practical problems in the manufacture and use of these products. Chemical engineers consult with chemists at many points during their work. Engineers do experiments and calculate such things as the temperature and pressure to be expected during an industrial process. They help to design buildings and plan what machinery will be needed. They estimate the number of people needed to operate a plant as well as the cost of power and raw materials. They make extensive use of computers in this work. Chemical engineers must also consider the effect of a plant or process on the environment. They cannot build a plant that will release deadly fumes into the air. They cannot pollute lakes or streams or harm wildlife. Chemical engineers often build pilot plants or small-scale models of the actual processing facility. Pilot plants allow the engineers to test their work and to experiment with new processes.
Some chemical engineers supervise the construction of new facilities. They test equipment and teach operators how to use it. Other chemical engineers work in the manufacturing process itself. They solve many of the everyday problems incurred in running a plant. They make sure that standards of quality are met while production costs are kept as low as possible. Some engineers work in sales or management. A small number of chemical engineers work as consultants, offering their services to small businesses that do not need full-time chemical engineers. Still others teach and do research at colleges and universities.
In recent years chemical engineers have entered the field of biotechnology, designing bioreactors for plant cultures or developing models of ecosystem behavior following the spillage of chemicals. Another frontier for chemical engineers has been electronics, where they have researched the chemical synthesis of microelectronic components.
Education and Training Requirements
You usually need at least a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering to enter this field. Some engineering colleges offer work-study programs that combine work experience with formal study. It generally takes four or five years to earn a bachelor's degree in engineering. Many jobs in chemical engineering also require advanced degrees. You can earn a master's degree in one or two additional years of full-time study. Many chemical engineers find that a master's degree in business administration is useful, especially if they want to become managers. If you want to do research or teach at the university level, you will need a doctoral degree. It usually takes about four years of full-time study beyond the bachelor's degree to earn a doctoral degree. Many engineers continue their education on a part-time basis after they have found jobs in their field. Employers often pay tuition for courses that engineers take to improve their job skills. Chemical engineers must be willing to study throughout their careers so that they can keep up with advances in engineering technology.
Engineers who offer their services to the public or whose work affects life, health, or property must be licensed by the state in which they work. They generally need a degree from an approved engineering college, about four years of work experience as an engineer, and a passing grade on a state examination before being licensed as a professional engineer.
Getting the Job
If you take part in a work-study program in college, you may be able to work full time for your employer after you graduate. Your college placement office can also help you find a job as a chemical engineer. Newspapers, Internet job banks, and professional journals often list openings for chemical engineers. You can also apply directly to companies that hire chemical engineers.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Advancement depends on education and experience. Chemical engineers who have bachelor's degrees generally start as assistants to experienced engineers. After they gain experience, they are usually given more responsibility. Many become experts in their special fields. Engineers can become team leaders or technical service and development (TS&D) officers. The TS&D engineer expands the applications for his or her company's products and finds new ones. Some chemical engineers go on to become managers or executives. A few start their own consulting firms or businesses. Others use their background in chemical engineering to advance in marketing or sales careers.
The employment outlook for chemical engineers is good. The number of jobs is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all jobs through the year 2014. Much of the projected growth in employment will be in service industries, such as scientific research and development. Job opportunities for chemical engineers will be better in pharmaceuticals, specialty chemicals, electronics, and plastics materials.
Chemical engineers generally work in clean, well-equipped plants, offices, and laboratories. At times they must supervise construction or production lines. Although chemicals can be dangerous, workers follow strict safety regulations and injuries are rare. The basic workweek for chemical engineers is forty hours, but overtime is often necessary. Chemical engineers should have interest and aptitude in math and science as well as strong analytical skills. They must be able to work in teams and to communicate their ideas effectively. Chemical engineers must be creative and imaginative and enjoy the challenge of solving problems.
Where to Go for More Information
National Society of Professional Engineers
1420 King St.
Alexandria, VA 22314-2794
Society of Plastics Engineers
14 Fairfield Dr.
P.O. Box 403
Brookfield, CT 06804-0403
Earnings and Benefits
Earnings vary depending on the experience of the chemical engineer, the location, and the type of job. In 2004 chemical engineers earned a median salary of $76,770 per year. In 2005 those with a bachelor's degree earned an average starting salary of $53,813 per year. Chemical engineers with master's degrees earned an average starting salary of $57,260 per year. Those with doctoral degrees earned an average starting salary of $79,591. Benefits usually include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.