Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Where Have All the Students Gone?

By LYN TATTUM (Publisher and group v.p., Chemical Week)
It is no secret that the chemical industry fears skilled labor shortages in the coming years, as students shrink away from studying science, and those that do graduate in chemistry or chemical engineering lean towards more glamorous sectors such as IT, biotechnology, or finance. This trend has often been attributed to the continuing poor image of the chemical industry, which wrestles with environmental, security and other “green” issues. As a recent cover story by Esther D’Amico discusses, Talent Management is increasing in vogue among chemicals companies. At the other end of the scale, the baby boomers who found the new chemical industry of the 1970s and 1980s so exciting are facing retirement. They cannot be easily replaced.
In the U.K., the number of secondary school students taking chemistry has fallen by 37% in the last ten years. This means that almost 15,000 fewer students have taken the subject.
At university level, the number of undergraduates taking chemistry has fallen 25% - a decline of about 1,000 students. Even more shocking, over the last seven years almost 70 university science departments have closed, according to recent data from the Confederation of British Industries (CBI). Over the next seven years, the UK needs to double the number of graduates with science, engineering, and technology degrees, or sectors such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology – let alone the diminished UK chemical industry – will be in peril.
Many companies are now reaching out to students on an individual level. Nance Dicciani, President and CEO at Honeywell Specialty Materials, says her message is: “It’s possible for someone to come to the chemical industry and have an impact.”
The ability to affect our future via chemistry ought to be a huge attraction for young people, not a turn off. At Chemical Week, we are focusing on efforts to educate people about the benefits of a career in science, and its role in our global economy. If you have particular examples, please post your comments or email them to letters@chemweek.com.

1 comment:

Jorge Buhler said...

As I was reading your “Where have all the students gone?” note I was thinking “What the industry needs to do is pay better”. Students as a whole are rational beings, pay counts. I am glad you bring it up too.

Another factor, soft but an important one, is professional prestige. In the US, for whatever reasons, engineering in general is a low prestige profession (usually not even listed as a profession), where in other parts of the world is a prestigious profession, sometimes the most prestigious one.