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Chemical Engineering Graduates are Not Chemical Engineers!

By: , Posted on: June 14, 2016

chemical engineer shirt
Image taken from Teespring
First published on Linkedin

I wrote a post a few weeks back about how chemical engineering graduates wanted to be chemical engineers, but half of them never would be, because we are producing far more grads than there are jobs for.

This year’s batch of grads are coming on to a market where they are not just competing with each other (and those of last year’s grads who haven’t yet given up hope of a career in engineering). They are also competing with a glut of experienced engineers from the Oil and Gas industry who have lost their jobs as a result of the oil price crash.

Few people accuse chem eng grads of a lack of confidence (many may as well be wearing the tee-shirt above) but they have been misled into thinking that they are already professional chemical engineers. Many of them seemingly cannot understand why they have not been given the well-paid job they thought they had been promised, earned as a right by completing a very hard degree course. Many others play employers off against each other, (or try to), as if they were a commodity in short supply.

Many of the misconceptions underlying these mistakes come from bad advice from academics with no idea of what is happening in industry and/or university careers services stuck in the 1970s. So for all of you looking to get a job as an engineer with no previous experience of working as one, let me help you out with a few facts to aid a useful attitude adjustment:

  1. You are not an engineer yet. People like you are not in short supply, there are twice as many grads as there are jobs.
  2. Neither are people like you with high marks in a degree programme in short supply. 75% of grads have “good degrees” nowadays. Universities graduate far more students with a upper second or first class degree than they did in the past. In any case, some employers discriminate against those with first class degrees, which can make candidates look more suited to academia than engineering.You are not an engineer yet. Maybe you’ll never be one-there’s a lot more to it than there was in those exams you took.
  3. That stuff you learned in university was not engineering, and the people who taught you it were not engineers. Giving you a job means that real engineers are going to have to take time out from their engineering work to teach you engineering. You are a liability for a year or two, and some of you will prove to not have what it takes. You are not an engineer yet, you need to know how, not just know about.
  4. Employers are not going to give you a break so that you can show them that you can solve real world problems, because you can’t.  That’s what engineers do, and you aren’t an engineer yet. Would someone allow a green med school grad to carry out open heart surgery? Get over yourself. My expert witness experience covers a few cases where green engineering grads were given  a chance to solve real world problems. It didn’t go well.
  5. You don’t even know what an engineer is yet, so don’t be picky. If anyone offers you a job with a title ending in the word engineer, be grateful. Take it. Work hard. Learn what engineering is about. Then you perhaps get to wear the tee-shirt. Until then remember that you are not an engineer yet, and you are not automatically entitled to become one.
  6. Some chemical engineers may earn a lot of money, but you aren’t a chemical  engineer yet. The market value of your skillset is less than zero, as explained in the last section. The high wages paid to a small subset of grads in the past (mainly by big oil and gas operating companies) were golden handcuffs, intended to keep those grads there until they were useful. Try to remember this when you are considering whether employers are offering you a good enough benefits package.
  7. Employers are not refusing to take you on to be awkward, as it seems some academics (and others who are not yet engineers) think. Academia may be able to create more or less as many new degree places as they like, but engineering firms can only fund new jobs by getting new work. Taking on a graduate is an expensive speculative investment in an uncertain future, and times are tough. Some graduate hires will become engineers, but some will not. Of those that become engineers, many will leave the company which invested in them for better pay elsewhere.

Whilst there are those who think that arrogance in process design is best measured in nanomorans, I have earned the right to confidence in my judgement. Until you have, I’d recommend a bit of humility and gratitude. Or there’s always a job going at the checkout in Aldi.

I offer more detailed advice on getting that first job in engineering here.

PS- so many people have asked me where to get the tee shirt that I may as well add a link. Engineers, eh?

Read more posts from Sean Moran, The Voice of Chemical Engineering

 About the author

sean moranProfessor Moran is a Chartered Chemical Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he co-ordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.


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