Talent pipeline: chemicals industry career guide for graduate engineers

Chemical engineers tend to be the best paid in the industry and get to work on some of the most important challenges for our society, from preventing an energy crisis to developing life-saving drugs.

Why work in the chemicals sector?

It provides one of the most competitive salaries in the engineering profession

Chemical engineers are some of the most in-demand of the whole profession.

According to the Institution of Chemical Engineers, the average annual starting salary for a UK chemical engineering graduate is £28,000. The average chemical engineering salary was £53,000 last year, and the best-paid chemical engineers were those working in the oil and gas sector with a wage packet in excess of £70,000.

It aims to grow 50 per cent by 2030

This figure was set by Business Secretary Vince Cable and Business Minister Michael Fallon last year.  The government is already working to strengthen the UK’s chemical supply chains so technologies and products are sourced in this country rather than overseas. This means more job opportunities will be available for engineers in the coming years.

In the latest survey of business confidence by the Chemical Industries Association, nearly 90 per cent of companies said they expect sales to increase or remain at current levels in the next 12 months. From the same group, 95 per cent said they would increase or hold current research and development investment to help drive this growth.

It is solving issues such as the impending energy crisis

‘It is a particularly exciting sector for a chemist. There are tremendous opportunities. A chemist working for a company like Shell has to find ways and means to construct new molecules, technologies and products,’ says David Torres, global manager for Shell Chemicals.

What does the sector do?

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Chemical companies are playing a key role in developing alternative fuels such as hydrogen.

While the sector spans many industries, at its heart, chemical engineering is all about turning raw materials into useful products, such as food and energy.

Chemicals are used to develop the next generation of energy-efficient fuels

For example, Shell has developed OMEGA technology to convert ethylene to mono-ethylene glycol, which is used to make a wide range of industrial and consumer products. You could play an important role in the development of lubricants that can help motorists reduce their fuel consumption and improve engine efficiency.

The industry creates life-saving drugs for millions of people

Chemical engineers form the backbone of the pharmaceutical sector in developing and manufacturing drugs that could save lives.  While a project turnaround may take several years, the impact you could make through your work has the potential to touch millions of people throughout the world. Take a look at our pharmaceutical industry guide for more details.

The chemicals industry is a key contributor to the UK economy

Turnover for the chemical industry exceeds £57 billion, and more than 180,000 employees work for 3000 chemical companies in the UK. But they’re not all huge oil and gas or pharmaceutical giants – only 160 employ more than 250 people. The UK chemical industry represents around 12 per cent of value added in manufacturing, equivalent to 1.5 per cent of GDP.

What kind of jobs are on offer?

Chemical companies require scientists and engineers who can bring different strands of technology together.

Chemical engineering roles can vary widely. For instance, dealing with problems at operational plants can take hours or days, but developing new pharmaceutical products can take years.

Employers are usually looking for graduates who are hard-working, numerate and team members. Larger companies offer graduate schemes that can last anywhere from three to five years.

‘At a company like Shell there are a variety of roles for people with a background in chemistry,’ says Torres. ‘We need plenty of very good practical technicians – who understand stability, operatorship, reliability and how to ‘debottleneck’, in order to ensure increasingly complex processes run smoothly.

‘We also need people with chemistry PhDs to develop new technology. These people must be good integrators, able to bring different strands of technology together and turn complex processes into systems and products that are affordable and easy to execute.’

And where are they?

Ineos operates several chemical manufacturing facilities in the UK including in Runcorn, Cheshire.

Employers who need chemical engineers are diverse and span a wide range of industries. They can include key players in oil and gas, nuclear, food and drink, paper and plastic and other process industries.

In oil and gas companies such as Shell, chemists are needed in the upstream, where clever catalysts, special polymers and new molecules help maximise production. ‘There are also opportunities in most of the markets where we have downstream operations,’ says Torres. ‘In other words, everything we do with the hydrocarbons once they are out of the ground. We also need people in our labs – in Houston, Bangalore and Amsterdam.’

In July, a key project by INEOS received a loan guarantee approval for a new import terminal, to store and process ethane from shale gas at its site in Grangemouth, Scotland, as North Sea, creating more jobs in this area. Meanwhile chemicals group, 3M, currently has jobs available in Bracknell, Atherstone, Loughborough and Newton Aycliffe.

If you want the inside track on engineering jobs in other industries, take a look at our full list of sector guides.