VP  Vol.6 No.3 , September 2020
Chemical Industry and Chemist’s Jobs after the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Long-Term Prediction of Employment Outlook for Chemical Professionals
Abstract: In March 2020, the whole world was impacted by the ripple effects of COVID-19 and was in the midst of battling this infectious disease. A global pandemic caused by a microscopic enemy, which outbroke in Wuhan, China, quickly spread, bringing the world’s largest economies to a halt. As a consequence, the financial infrastructures of several countries have been severely damaged. In just 3 weeks, unemployment claims surpassed 16 million in the United States alone, which soared to over 40 million by the end of May 2020. This accounts for a jobless rate of over 24%, a record high in history. Production of chemicals that go into construction and consumer uses trended down in March, and continued plummeting downward in the following months. The chemical manufacturing sector showed a slight drop in employment rate. It is important to understand these broad trends in the demand for chemicals and unemployment in chemistry in the coming months and years. In an economic downturn, fewer people buy new houses and new cars, which decreases the demand for the chemicals that go into manufacturing them. The dramatic drops in the stock market will also affect the pharmaceutical sector. It may become harder for small biotech firms to raise money from investors and seed new positions in start-ups. For major chemical and pharmaceutical companies, if stock prices and quarterly results suffer, we may begin to see layoffs—a reversal of the hiring trends of the past few years. Academia will be affected as well. For many universities and colleges, the sudden disruption in the academic structure of the Spring 2020 semester is having an immediate financial impact. Hiring freezes have begun. However, the effects of the economic downturn on new tenure-track positions won’t be clear until early Fall. In this article we have investigated the worldwide effects of major wars and global recessions on the chemical industry. We have analyzed the effects on job market trends to achieve a comprehensive long-term prediction of employment outlook for chemical professionals. In this regard, we have compared the Great Depression, World War II, Cold War, and other recession periods to predict a 10-year pattern after each event. The current impacts of COVID-19 on manufacturing jobs, faculty positions, hiring freezes, and student graduation due to university closures have also been evaluated. Strategies for maximizing job opportunities during the current pandemic have been provided.

1. Introduction (Great Depression Onward)

The global conflict labeled World War II, which emerged from the Great Depression, destabilized governments, economies, and countries across the world. For the United States, the Great Depression and World War II were the most important economic events of the twentieth century. After World War II and the huge economic modification, the collection of many commercial indicators, such as unemployment and gross domestic product (GDP), became standardized. The major recessions, beginning with the Great Depression, are listed in Table 1.

The unemployment rate due to recession often reaches a peak after the recession has officially ended ( U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020b—Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey). Until the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, no post-World War II era came anywhere near the extent of the Great Depression. During the Great Depression, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell by 27%, the deepest after demobilization during the recession beginning in December 2007, during which GDP had fallen 5.1% as of the second quarter of 2009. Additionally, the unemployment rate reached 10% during the Great Depression, which was the highest since the 10.8% rate reached during the 1981-82 recession ( Labonte & Makinen, 2003). The National Bureau of Economic Research dates recessions on a monthly basis back to 1854. According to their chronology, from 1854 to 1919, there were 16 cycles. The average recession lasted 22 months, and the average expansion 27 months. From 1919 to 1945, there were six cycles; recessions lasted an average of 18 months and expansions for 35 months. From 1945 to 2001, and 10 cycles, recessions lasted an average of 10 months and expansions an average of 57 months. This has prompted some economists to declare that the business cycle has become less severe (Knoop, 2004). Many factors may have contributed to this moderation, such as the establishment of deposit insurance in the form of the Federal Deposit Insurance

Table 1. Recessions in the United States from the Great Depression onward.

Corporation in 1933, and increased regulation of the banking sector (Barth et al., 2004; Kareken & Wallace, 1978; Bhattacharya et al., 1998). Other changes include the use of fiscal policy as automatic stabilizers to alleviate cyclical volatility (McKay & Reis, 2016). The creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913 has been disputed as a source of stability, and its policies having mixed successes.

Since the early 1980s, the sources of the Great Moderation have been attributed to numerous causes including public policy, industry practices, technology, and even good luck (Goodfriend, 2011; Selgin et al., 2012; Ahmed, et al., 2004; The Federal Reserve Bond, 2004). The Great Depression was a banking panic, and a collapse in the money supply took place in the United States that was exacerbated by international commitment to the gold standard. Extensive new tariffs and other factors contributed to an extremely deep depression. GDP, industrial production, employment, and prices fell substantially. A small economic expansion within the depression began in 1933, with gold inflow expanding the money supply and improving expectations. That expansion ended in 1937. The ultimate recovery, which occurred with the beginning of World War II in September 1939, was credited to financial policy and expansion (Friedman, 1970; Irwin, 2010; Irwin, 2011; Romer, 1992).

2. Chemical Industry Outlook

Following the end of the twentieth century, due to trade problems and passive growth in several key end-use chemicals markets, the production of chemicals in the United States increased at a slower rate, as in 2019, according to the American Chemistry Council (American Chemistry Council, 2020). Weak global manufacturing and uncertain trade policy is predicted due to trade problems and passive growth in several key end-use chemicals markets, to continuously moderate growth in the U.S. chemical production in 2020. In contrast, the establishment of new capacity linked to the advantage of shale gas will provide headwinds. In 2019, total trade in chemicals in the United States was projected to contract 3% to $ 242 billion, then recover 1% in 2020. This forecast was made in early 2019 with conservation optimism for growth in 2020. Manufacturing chemicals in the United States has a competitive advantage in the world markets, due to the abundant and affordable supply of energy and raw materials.

Since 2010, the chemical industry has announced 340 projects with a cumulative value of $204 billion. The total volume of chemical production (excluding pharmaceuticals) increased by 0.6% in 2019 and was projected to increase by 0.4% in 2020, before strengthening to reach 2.3% in 2021 (American Chemistry Council, 2020). However, the current pandemic has changed these forecasts. The sudden drop in crude oil prices completely dampened the shale-favored U.S. investment.

The oil industry has created well-paying American jobs for the seventh consecutive year. Pursuing a tradition of innovation, companies remain committed to providing essential materials to a growing population and finding sustainable solutions for the future. The chemicals sector is a $ 553 billion business and one of America’s largest manufacturing industries, accounting for more than 10% of all U.S. exports and 14% of the world’s chemicals. More than 96% of all manufactured products are affected by chemicals (Jenkins, 2019). At the end of February 2020, the German chemical group BASF was worried about its prospects for 2020, due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. In a statement released on February 28, 2020 alongside its 2019 fiscal year, the BASF stated that the viral infection could lead to a second year of reduced profits for the company and decrease global chemical production to around 1.2% (Industry Week, 2020). It would be the industry’s worst growth since the Great Recession of 2008 and a significant drop from 2019, where it had increased 1.8%. The automotive market represents around 20% of BASF’s sales.

Figure 1 shows the chemical activity barometer vs. industrial production for a short-term period of 2001-2020 as well as long-term period of 1948-2020. American Chemical Council’s Chemical Activity Barometer (American Chemistry Council,

Figure 1. Chemical Activity Barometer vs. Industrial Production (American Chemistry Council, 2020).

2020) is the first-of-its-kind leading economic indicator that helps anticipate peaks and troughs in the overall U.S. economy, and highlights potential trends in other industries in the country. This barometer can be a critical tool for predicting broader economic health in the United States.

3. Chemical Education and the Academic Job Outlook

Many scientists have been affected by university closures, particularly those who had to totally shut down or postpone their research work, due to COVID-19. This situation is a major threat to the scientist’s career. Several universities have canceled or postponed job searches. The disruptions will impact the careers of researchers at all seniority levels, but the greatest impact will be on early-career scientists (Yan, 2020). Undergraduate students will not be able to build their skills through summer internships this year, since many of them are getting canceled. When professors begin to review graduate school applications later, those who have little research experience will be considered as less competitive.

For students who are already in graduate school, the university closures might delay graduation. Students doing field or lab research had to stop work when the universities closed down in April due to the coronavirus. The situation has been particularly tough for Ph.D. students who anticipated defending their dissertations during summer this year. All doctoral programs in the United States require candidates to have one first-author paper in press at the time of graduation. Due to sudden closure in lab work, many students may not be able to submit a manuscript for publication, which may delay their graduation. The closures have impacted publication records, at least in the short term. The situation may be slightly better for students who do modeling, and have the opportunity to complete their Ph.D. from home (Yan, 2020).

Due to the far-reaching impacts of COVID-19, colleges and universities in the United States and Canada are analyzing their financial situations. The University of Arizona has estimated a $250 million loss due to the pandemic, and many colleges and universities have announced a hiring freeze (Chemjobber, 2020b). Yale University has decided to not hire tenure-track faculty for the next academic year, until June 30, 2021 (Chemjobber, 2020b). Other U.S. institutions who have announced hiring/salary freezes include Brown University, University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Duke University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Western Michigan University, Indiana University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Oklahoma, University of Utah, Florida State University, New York University, University of Montana, University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, Northern Michigan University, Miami University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Syracuse University, Kansas State University, University of Colorado-Denver, Washington State University, University of Alabama, Purdue University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Villanova University, Harvard University, and Vanderbilt University (Brown University, 2020; University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2020; Forinash, 2020; Gendreau, 2020; Davis, 2020; Indiana University, 2020; Meisenzahl, 2020; The University of Oklahoma, 2020; The University of Utah, 2020; Florida State University, 2020; New York University, 2020; Neuman, 2020; News Break, 2020; Weiter, 2020; Northern Michigan University, 2020; Bright, 2020; The Ohio State University, 2020; WILK Newsroom, 2020; Weiner, 2020; Darr, 2020; University of Colorado, 2020; Washington State University, 2020; Jackson, 2020; Bangert, 2020; University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2020; Villanova University, 2020; Kim, 2020; Durchholz & Milton, 2020). Tenure-track positions at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada begin to appear in early summer and reach a steady pace in August and September, with most positions having application deadlines between September 1 and October 31. Due to the economic crisis related to COVID-19, fewer positions will be announced during the 2020-2021 academic year. Currently it is uncertain if Ph.D.-granting institutions will post more positions over small colleges, or, for the positions posted, which sub-fields of chemistry will be the most popular. This puts graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who planned to apply for faculty positions during the Summer and Fall of 2020, in an undesirable situation. If only a few academic positions are posted in August and September of 2020, applicants will have to wait an extra year for more positions to be posted, without any guarantee that the situation will improve in a year (Chemjobber, 2020b).

Many scientists are worried that they’ll have a harder time securing federal research grants and other forms of funding as the economy heads into a recession (Yan, 2020). Students working as postdocs may hope to land a faculty job that hasn’t been canceled. If those don’t bear fruit, they will likely apply for industry jobs. Postdocs who move into her tenure-track position hope that their universities will fairly evaluate any delays in new faculty members’ research and progress.

Figure 2 shows that the unemployment continued to mount for new graduates and drop for experienced chemists and chemical engineers, during the Great Recession. Talented and motivated chemists and chemical engineers who can adjust to the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and quickly find affordable solutions,

Figure 2. Opposing trends: Unemployment rates of new graduate chemists versus all other American Chemical Society (ACS) members during the Great Recession of 2007-2009 (Rovner, 2014).

will be in high demand across the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. While employment may remain subdued in the short-term, trends show that, in the medium- to long-term, there will be no shortage of work for chemists and engineers.

4. Future of the Chemical Job Market

Jobs in chemistry provide scientists the opportunity to solve fascinating problems, and an opportunity to create something interesting and useful. Most of these positions pay well and provide good benefits (Rovner, 2014; Chemjobber, 2019a). During an economic turbulence and decline, layoffs become a matter of concern, similar to the last great recession from December 2007 to June 2009. During that time, and for years afterward, there seemed to be an announcement every other month about a group of scientists that would be needing to find new jobs. Due to the current coronavirus pandemic, layoffs may be on the rise again. The reductions were already instituted in the pharmaceutical industry, and had risen by 16% in the chemical industry in 2018. It is very difficult for chemists to maintain sanity during uncertain economic times, as there is a chance of possible disruption in their careers.

During the Great Recession which started from December 2007, Pfizer was the pioneer of layoffs in pharmaceutical industries. In October 2019 Merck, the international pharmaceutical giant, announced mass layoffs that will hit its sales personnel based in suburban Philadelphia. About 500 people affiliated with Merck’s offices in Lansdale and Upper Gwynedd would lose their jobs in permanent workforce reductions, the company stated in a letter it filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. During the same month, Johnson & Johnson had stated its plans to eliminate 297 employees at its Wayne facility (Wood, 2019).

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall employment of chemists and materials scientists was projected to grow 4% from 2018 to 2028, similar to other occupations. In the pharmaceutical, medical, and chemical manufacturing industries, chemists are needed to develop nanotechnology for medicinal uses, and improve environmental safety in the workplace and community. Chemists with laboratory experience through cooperative programs or internships, are likely to meet with better prospects of employment after graduation (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020a—Chemicals and Material Scientists: Job Outlook; Wang & Widener, 2020; Chemjobber, 2020a; Scott, 2020; Chemjobber, 2019b).Table 2 shows the employment projections data for chemists and materials scientists, for 2018-28. Since this projection was made in 2018, the recession due to the current pandemic was not accounted for.

The global chemical and materials industry is undergoing a full-fledged transformation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a high demand for defensive gears and disinfectants, increased call for antimicrobial supplements, and a rise in the absorption of plastic and glass for constructing protective

Table 2. Employment projections data for chemists and materials scientists, 2018-28 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020a—Chemicals and Material Scientists: Job Outlook).

equipment. However, it is predicted that the industry may suffer in the coming days due to economic restraints and disruptions of supply groups (Market Watch, 2020). On the other hand, the chemical market could get better opportunities, with increased demand for textile fabrics to be used for various health and hygiene products. The chemicals segment can progress rapidly as the demand for sanitizers and various medicines are increasing.

Countries like Germany and Switzerland are extending their healthcare support to the world, which entails a constant influx of necessary chemicals to counter the effect of COVID-19. Several companies, including some in the United States, have increased their production of chemicals to support the fight against the pandemic. However, the production is getting channelized, which can impact the outcome of other segments (basic chemicals, specialty chemicals, advanced materials, polymers and plastics, renewable chemicals, as well as metals and alloys) in the near future. Several firms are incorporating measures, different from their standard processes, which will also influence the market’s outcome of in the days to come. Arkema (France) increased its production of alcohol-based solutions for the healthcare industry. Lanxess (Germany) increased their production of high-level disinfectants. Tata Chemicals (India) decided to shut down their productions in three plants. Milliken and Company decided to expand their manufacture of antimicrobial fabrics, and Air Liquide S.A. (U.S.) increased their production of medical gases (Market Watch, 2020).

5. Job-Seeking Strategies for Chemical Professionals

Due to the uncertainty in job prospects caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, students in their senior/final year at universities, recent graduates, and other job seekers need a proper plan, in order to boost their chances of employment. Some important tips provided by recruiters are as follows (Top Universities, 2020; Friedman, 2020; Roepe, 2020):

1) Perform in-depth research and uncover the companies or institutions which are hiring.

2) Complete a personal SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, to have a clear idea of the skills needed for improvement. Focus on building resume accordingly.

3) Create a one-page document that lists the target industry, companies, job titles, etc. Keep an eye on the company websites. Apply early and flexible about job interests.

4) Practice mock interviewing virtually with a friend or professional contact. Make sure to have the correct camera angle with no background distractions.

5) Focus on professional networking and relationship-building, connect with alumni who are working at various places, and reach out to recruiters. Ask the school’s career center for networking opportunities and guidance. Obtain a referral from a professional, which can increase the chances of getting the desired job.

6) Join professional groups on LinkedIn and Facebook, and follow the companies of interest on social media. Connect with like-minded professionals online and ask about virtual events.

7) Set Google alerts for companies of interest, and listen to investor/earnings calls, to obtain an understanding of the leadership’s concerns and threats faced by the company due to the pandemic. This will provide a better insight of how to help the company achieve its goals, upon interview and hire.

6. Conclusion

The coronavirus pandemic transitioned from a health crisis to a financial one, shattering businesses, capsizing entire industries, and sending financial markets staggering. These are the short-term and mostly reversible impacts on societies. The long-lasting impacts on international trade, wealth disparities, manufacturing hubs, and supply chains need to be redefined. For especially students in their senior year seeking jobs, or newly graduated chemists, positive mental attitude is very important. This will enable them to stay on track and try different options, so that they can make the most of their potential. It is critical to not have a pessimistic attitude, as there are vast opportunities awaiting chemists. During an economic slowdown, such as the one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is of essence to focus on what people can control. Prospective job applicants should improve their skills and participate in networking opportunities. It is important to lay the groundwork now, so that when the crisis is over, the applicants have open opportunities. Throughout this period of crisis, it is very important to have a focused career plan, stay alert, and remain motivated.

Cite this paper: Guha, S. , Karim, K. and Beni, R. (2020) Chemical Industry and Chemist’s Jobs after the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Long-Term Prediction of Employment Outlook for Chemical Professionals. Voice of the Publisher, 6, 69-83. doi: 10.4236/vp.2020.63007.

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