Healing process: Careers in the process sector

The process industry is defying its reputation for conservatism and offering young engineers a wealth of opportunities to innovate

Ask the average engineering student what sector they’d like to be involved  in and chances are the process industries won’t feature very highly. For many, process engineering brings to mind dull conservatism, where regulation and traditional practice overshadow innovation and achievement. According to Stan Higgins, chief executive of the North East of England Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC), the reality is very different. While he admits that the sector suffers from an image problem, he claims that you only need to look at the impact of products developed by the process industries to realise the rewards of a career as a process engineer.

‘It’s the chemical sciences that will bring about the biggest improvement in society’s carbon footprint,’ Higgins said. ‘The evidence shows that our products already have a huge impact in terms of energy savings — for example, in insulating homes, providing plastics to reduce the weight of vehicles and fuel additives to boost consumption.’ The sector  also contributes significantly to the UK economy and is currently worth more than £60bn per year. It has continued to grow in output year on year since the 1960s and is one of the last remaining net exporters in the UK. Over the last decade, process industries have added £30m per day to the UK balance of trade while the rest of manufacturing has shown a £200m per day deficit.

Graeme Philp, chief executive of industry body GAMBICA, claims that while there has been a reduction in confidence over the last quarter, process industries are faring well and will continue to do so. ‘We’re fairly robust and generally not tossed around too much on the troubled sea of economic fluctuation,’ he said. ‘An engineer in the process industries can look forward to a relatively stable and rewarding career.’ Philp believes one of the reasons for this is the relatively long time frames involved. For instance, due to the lengthy construction of a chemical plant or oil refinery, it can take years before an organisation needs to buy the instrumentation. By that time, the company is already committed to the project and therefore to the investment in process technologies.

It is the chemical sciences that will bring about the biggest improvement in society’s carbon footprint

Stan Higgins, NEPIC

However, as with other engineering sectors, there are not enough people interested in joining the sector to maintain its growth. NEPIC claims that in the northeast alone, the process sectors are thought to require up to 10,000 people with engineering skills over the next 10 years. The Chemical Industries Association (CIA) added that there is a continued need for young engineers with three to five years of experience who can hit the ground running.

Simon Marsh, employment director at the CIA, claims the role of a process engineer is  far more varied than it was a decade ago. ‘Many more engineers are now directly involved with health, safety and environment issues and degree courses have started to reflect this increasing importance,’ he said. ‘The process industry itself now employs fewer design engineers and project managers; these roles  are frequently subcontracted to the multitude  of contractor companies that have sprung up  in the last 10 to 15 years.’

The skills shortage continues to be particularly acute in the process industries  due to the lack of understanding about the role of a process engineer. Cogent, the sector skills council for the chemical, pharmaceutical, nuclear, petroleum, polymers and life sciences sectors, has developed an online tool that can be used to identify the potential routes for progression within process sectors. It hopes  this will help tackle some misconceptions.

Added to this there has been a change in emphasis within the industry. ‘Around 20–30 years ago, it was expected that the process experts would be employed by the end-user companies,’ said Philp. ‘In the UK, you’d have companies such as BP and Shell who would have very knowledgeable staff, and that is where the bulk of the expertise lay. There has been a gradual change towards that expertise residing in the instrumentation and control areas and that on its own has caused a bit of  a hiatus in the availability of skills.’

As such there is a wide range of opportunities available. For those tempted by  a career in process engineering, not only will their skills be in demand, but they will also  have a chance to innovate in areas that can have a profound impact on society.

‘If we’re talking about quality of life, it’s an extremely fascinating industry,’ said Philp. ‘It’s not only concerned with applying the electronics and software inside the instrumentation and control equipment, but you’re having to take into account the physics and the chemistry of the process you’re trying to control. If you’re turned on by that type of challenge, you get that in spades.’