The Skills Gap in the American and Chinese Chemical Industries

29 March 2019

The skills gap is growing, as the latest figures for manufacturing jobs show that there is plenty of work but not enough trained workers. With the chemicals industry growing faster than other manufacturing sectors the lack of a skilled workforce will hit chemical production harder than others.

There has been a lot of talk about how changes in production will hurt employment levels. But while many fear that Industry 4.0, with its increased use of robotics, advanced computing, AI, and the Internet of Things will cause major job losses, history tells us otherwise. For throughout the previous revolutions (19th century England, Henry Ford production line, & Japanese automation), whenever industrialisation has advanced more jobs have been created than lost, despite the scaremongering Luddites.

Instead, the problem lies in a lack of trained workers in the job market. An issue highlighted in the latest Skills Gap in Manufacturing report, published by Deloitte, which states that, “the skills gap may leave an estimated 2.4 million positions unfilled between 2018 and 2028, with a potential economic impact of $2.5 trillion. Further, the study shows that the positions relating to digital talent, skilled production, and operational managers may be three times as difficult to fill in the next three years.”

There are three main challenges facing chemical industry employers.

  1. Lack of Interest in Manufacturing

An earlier 2015 report (also by industry consultants at Deloitte in cooperation with the Manufacturing Institute) found that interest in a career in manufacturing among school leavers was lower than ever before.

In the study, respondents aged 19 to 33 gave their opinions on work in the manufacturing sector where many stated they thought employment there would be dirty, inflexible, and dangerous. As a result, millennials prefer the idea of working in industries, such as technology, healthcare, and finance.

  1. Lack of Manufacturing Skills

With fewer young people interested in a career in manufacturing, the skills needed to work in this sector are becoming less and less sought after. As a result, there is a trend away from STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects that is making it increasingly difficult for employers in the chemical industry to find suitably qualified employees.

Furthermore, the chemical market’s rapid increase in demand for specialty chemicals means that raw material production is likely to get more technical, as production plants become ever larger and more complex.

  1. Skilled Baby Boomers Retiring

Further adding to the skills gap challenge in the chemical industry is the rate of retiring chemical workers, each removing his skills and experience from the talent pool. For as the popularity of work in the manufacturing sector has waned over the past few decades, the chemical industry has been left with an aging population.

As a recent report by Digitalist Magazine, notes, “The average age of the chemical employee currently sits around 45.3 years old – older than all other industries except agriculture, transportation and utilities, and public administration. The industry is currently grappling with knowledge loss as sizeable portions of this population begin to retire in the coming few years.

While there is little evidence of this skilled workforce being replaced at a sufficient rate by younger generations. For example, while DataUSA (an American research body co-funded by Deloitte) notes that there is slight growth in the number of chemistry graduates (up 0.45% in 2016 to 21,821), a large number of these students are from overseas. As a report by the National Foundation for American Policy states, “International students make up the large majority of full-time students in many graduate science- and engineering-related programs, and their numbers have been rising much faster than the number of domestic students.”

Most notably, 57% of full-time chemistry courses in the USA were filled by international students.

America is not alone in its skills gap, as the fall in demand for chemistry as a study topic is a growing trend throughout the West. For example, in the UK, the Royal Society of Chemistry reports that, “In 2017, 26,945 students applied to university to study chemistry, … down 8.5 per cent on 2016 and down 13.4 per cent on 2015.” At the same time, the number of applicants accepted on chemistry courses also fell, “… down 4.9 per cent on 2016 and down 9 per cent on 2015.”

As a result, many universities are closing their chemistry departments completely. Laboratory equipment and chemical supplies are expensive and can be seen as an expendable overhead for a dwindling number of students. Conversely, humanities can be taught online, while maintaining a mathematics department only requires a piece of chalk.

But a falling interest in chemistry is not a global phenomenon.

According to a report on Chemical Education in China by the Chinese Department of Higher Education in cooperation with Beijing’s Curriculum and Teaching Materials Research Institute, the education system has been increasing its focus on chemistry since the 1980s.

While similar to many western education systems, in that Chinese school children have the option to stop studying chemistry around age 13, there is still plenty of interest in the subject.

As the report states, “There are at present about one hundred thousand ordinary secondary schools in China with 60 million students and near two hundred thousand chemistry teachers. Among the 1054 universities and colleges more than 300 have set up chemistry [as a] speciality.”

Adding that, of the 2 million students in adult higher education, “… one eighth of them learn chemistry courses. [Plus] Chinese Radio and TV University and Satellite TV Education offer chemistry lessons every week.”

Given the exceptional growth of Chinese chemical production and its predicted expansion, it seems that the West could learn a lot from China’s efforts to avoid a skills gap. Despite the trend for western chemical companies to set up production in the Far East, China is increasingly taking its domestic chemical requirements into its own hands. While chemical industry research, both academic and commercial, is increasingly being led by Chinese chemists.

In fact, while chemical industry chiefs are right to worry about a skills gap in the chemical industry, it is perhaps only a regional problem.


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Photo credit: CardiffUniversity, Digitalist Magazine, StraitsTimes, History & Manufacturingstories