Chemical engineers solve chemical problems by applying the principles of chemistry and engineering. In this way, they build bridges between science and manufacturing. Their specific duties include designing equipment and processes for large-scale chemical manufacturing, planning and testing methods of manufacturing products and treating byproducts, and supervising production. They also work in other manufacturing industries, such as electronics, photographic equipment, clothing, and pulp and paper. Along with the manufacturing industries, they also work in healthcare, biotechnology, and business services.
Chemical engineers have connections to many different fields, including chemistry, physics, mathematics, and mechanical and electrical engineering. They often specialize in a single chemical process, such as oxidation or polymerization. Sometimes they specialize in a certain aspect of the field, like materials science, or the development of specific products such as fertilizers and pesticides, automotive plastics, or chorine bleach. In their work, they must keep in mind the effects of chemical manufacturing on the environment, as well as the safety of workers and customers.
Because chemical engineers use computer technology in all phases of their work, they must be intimately familiar with the application of computer methods to chemical process analysis. Chemical engineers need to be able to work effectively as part of a team. They should have the ability to communicate in writing and orally. These communication skills are vital in the field of chemical engineering because chemical engineers interact so often with many non-engineering specialists in a wide variety of fields. Chemical engineers should be analytical, creative, detail-oriented, and inquisitive.
In 2002, chemical engineers earned a median annual salary of $72,490. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $48,450, and the highest 10%, who earned more than $88,830. According to a 2003 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, bachelor’s degree candidates in mechanical engineering received starting offers averaging $52,384, master’s degree candidates averaged $57,857, and Ph.D. candidates averaged $70,729.
Training and Education
A bachelor’s degree is required for all entry-level chemical engineering positions. Most programs include study in the aerospace specialty, as well as courses in mathematics and science. Many programs include a design course, along with a computer or laboratory class. Many colleges offer students the option of earning a 2- or 4-year degree in engineering technology, which include hands-on laboratory courses that prepare students for practical design and production work, as opposed to more theory-based jobs. While graduates of these programs may obtain the same kinds of jobs as graduates with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, they are not qualified to register as professional engineers.
Faculty positions and many research and development programs in chemical engineering require graduate training. Some engineers earn degrees in business administration to enhance their education and give themselves more career options. In fact, many high-level executives in government and business started their careers as engineers. Engineers in the United States are required to be licensed if they offer their services directly to the public. When engineers become licensed, they are designated Professional Engineers (PE). PE requirements include a degree from an engineering program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), 4 years of relevant work experience, and successful completion of a State examination. Entry-level engineers usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers, and may advance to become technical specialists or to supervise a staff of engineers and technicians.
In 2002, chemical engineers held about 78,000 jobs.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of chemical engineers is expected to grow very little or not at all. This will be due to an overall decline in employment in the chemical manufacturing industry. But companies will continue to research and develop new chemicals and more efficient chemical processes. The pharmaceuticals industry may provide the best job opportunities, and many jobs will be in nonmanufacturing industries, such as research and testing services.
For more information on how to pursue this profession, please see our Computer Training and Technology Education directory.