Two scientists drawing chemical compounds on flip board

A guide to the chemicals sector in North West England

Despite the initial shockwaves of last year’s pandemic causing unprecedented disruption to the sector, most UK chemicals companies are now well on their way to recovering pre-COVID revenue and profit levels.

With the industry slowly getting back on its feet, the science and chemicals recruitment market is once again starting to flourish. In this article, I’ll profile the current state of the chemicals sector in its largest UK regional hub: North West England.

 

Why chemicals has such a large presence in the North West

The North West has long benefited from having a large port (Liverpool), good transport links via land and water, and a sizeable local working population. Historically, this led to major chemical companies setting up manufacturing sites in the region and the agglomeration effect taking hold. In more recent years, the industry has solidified its presence in the North West thanks to several overlapping factors.

Firstly, the existence of world-class universities in Liverpool, Manchester, Chester, and Lancaster provides a pipeline of scientific talent, opportunities for collaboration with industry, and access to novel technology for SMEs.

Secondly, affordable land and living costs (especially compared to southern Britain) means cheaper overheads for businesses and better living standards for employees.

Finally, the establishment of science parks and technology hubs such as Scitech Daresbury, Manchester Science Park, and Thornton Science Park mean that small and larger businesses can incubate ideas and grow organically.

 

The impact of COVID-19

COVID initially caused a huge slowdown due to delays and shortages of raw materials. In response, most chemicals companies halted their recruitment processes, with many utilising the government furlough scheme or making redundancies. Some even had to enforce temporary shutdowns.

Overall, though, the sector has emerged favourably from the pandemic. From H2 2020 onwards (and particularly throughout 2021), the industry experienced a phenomenal recovery, with companies quickly adapting working practices and diversifying products when certain raw materials were unavailable. This dynamism has caused the number of job vacancies to rise significantly in recent months.

 

Candidate demand by segment

For obvious reasons, companies within segments that have been supplying raw materials to the vaccine effort (such as speciality and fine chemicals) have been consistently hiring for the last twelve months.

The FMCG sector – particularly cleaning and hygiene chemicals and those companies supplying raw materials to them – has also been incredibly active. This is no doubt due to increased demand for such products in domestic and industrial environments.

At SRG, we have also seen a steady increase in demand for candidates in the polymer and materials sectors, where recovery seems to have been slightly slower.

 

Key hiring challenges in the post-COVID world

The main challenge is (and will continue to be) finding the right talent.

With the sector recovering so quickly, competition for talent remains fierce. Attracting the right individuals and moving quickly enough to keep them engaged will increasingly be a strategic priority for hiring managers.

With the chemicals recruitment market once again being candidate-led, people can now afford to be more selective about where they move. Indeed, most candidates will be involved in four or five recruitment processes, with potentially two or three offers already on the table.

As employee responses to SRG’s annual STEM Survey demonstrate, flexible or agile working is recognised as crucial to overall job satisfaction levels (even before the pandemic). Chemicals companies that can offer some form of flexible working for employees – when practicable, of course – will therefore stand out to candidates.

This comes with one major caveat: with most chemicals work being laboratory-based, offering flexible working requires striking a balance with operational efficiency.

 

Factors to consider when looking for chemicals talent

Aside from forcing salaries up, the rising number of vacancies is casting a spotlight on factors such as flexibility, benefits, working environment, and progression prospects. Companies therefore need to consider what makes them attractive when hiring.

If you’re a HR director within the sector, you’ll need to keep recruitment processes moving forward without big gaps between interviews, and, crucially, temper expectations when it comes to the calibre of candidate that your company is able to attract.

Waiting for the perfect technical fit in the current climate could mean waiting forever. In the long run, it may prove more cost-effective and beneficial to target people based on cultural fit, and then invest in upskilling and training to hone their technical capabilities.

 

 

What to expect in the near future

Based on recent hiring trends and common industry talking points, sustainability is going to be a huge driver as companies of all sizes strive to tackle the ongoing climate crisis.

A domino effect is taking place. As more firms in the region adapt to societal trends and evolving industry standards, larger multinationals are beginning to streamline their supply chains and select chemical suppliers based on their sustainability credentials.

This sustainability drive can also be seen in companies switching their attention to Green Chemistry, which involves cleaner energy production (hydrogen evolution), bio-produced chemicals, plant-based chemicals, recycled plastic, and the commercialisation of bi-products.

 

Forging a career in chemicals

Even before COVID, the chemicals industry was a major contributor to the UK economy and a key part of the country’s manufacturing output. Post-COVID, the industry will continue to boom and demonstrate just how crucial it is to society.

The robust and innovative nature of the sector means constant change and technological advances are inevitable, creating a genuinely exciting and dynamic environment for scientists to learn from and contribute to at any stage of their career. Chemicals is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, so offers real longevity for STEM graduates entering the job market.

This article is based on an interview with Faye that originally appeared in Chemicals North West’s Elements magazine. You can read the original version here.

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