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An overview of the chemicals industry

Chemical engineering: industry sector overview

Engineers in the chemicals industry see a product through from start to finish, whether it takes days or years.

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 Amec Foster Wheeler and Jacobs) 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 Johnson Matthey and UOP) develop and licence new process technology to make manufacturing chemicals more competitive.

Trends and developments in the chemicals industry

The volatile cost of oil is driving technology, both to make processes involving oil more efficient and to find ways of manufacturing products with alternative feedstocks (raw materials). Climate change concerns affect the industry and often tie in with good business sense: by making a plant more efficient or changing a process to use fewer resources it's often possible to save money.

Considerable amounts of detailed design and manufacturing capacity are being moved out of Europe, to places where costs such as labour and natural resources (eg gas) are lower. However, work such as R&D and process engineering development is typically being retained in the UK.

What it's like working in the chemicals industry

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 engineering job in the chemicals industry

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.

The highlights of a career in chemicals

  • Working at the forefront of technology.
  • The satisfaction of taking a product from design to production.
  • Having a variety of roles and career paths open to you.

The chemicals industry seeks graduates from the following disciplines:

  • chemical
  • civil/structural
  • control
  • electrical
  • environmental
  • instruments
  • manufacturing
  • materials
  • mathematics
  • mechanical
  • physics

Thanks to Mark Linthwaite, CEng FIChemE, for his help with this article. Mark is an engineering manager at Johnson Matthey. He has a BSc in chemical engineering from the University of Manchester, graduating in 1984, and has worked in the chemical industry for 32 years.