- Digitalisation is gaining momentum in the chemicals industry.
- Skills gaps can disadvantage all professionals from graduates through to senior professionals
- Taking the initiative to upskill and gain extra digital knowledge can be career critical.
Digitalisation is making waves across chemicals where technologies from machine learning and AI through to predictive monitoring are set to unlock over £400 trillion in value for the industry by 2025. Chemicals professionals have a pivotal role to play in realising this ambition and finding ways to work alongside and within digitally optimised systems.
Research from Accenture reveals that while most major chemical companies are investing in digital innovation, less than a quarter are succeeding.
For those companies that have succeeded, the rewards have seen them scaling more than half of their proof of concepts; and earning a higher-than-average return on digital investment. Meanwhile, more than 75% of other companies earned lower than the industry average, regardless of how much they scaled by.
The key difference between the successful, and unsuccessful digitalisation projects was access to, and the skill level of employees (a finding that Deloitte also echo in their research).
With the right skills, and knowledge chemicals professionals today can accelerate the future of the industry.
In this article, I’ll reveal the top opportunities and challenges for chemists in today’s digital landscape and provide guidance on where and how you can get started on advancing your career in chemistry.
Challenges and opportunities for chemists in today’s digital landscape
There are a number of positive digital trends influencing the careers of chemicals professionals today, as well as others that pose slight hurdles.
To start with, when applying for a role, digitalisation has helped to streamline processes and enable professionals to submit more applications, faster.
A common misconception when it comes to digitalisation is that technology will take jobs away from people. While there may be fewer lower skilled manual jobs, most jobs in the chemicals industry won’t be replaced, they’ll change.
There has been a significant increase in the types of different roles; including those that are directly digital, those that support digital functions, and those where digitalisation directly supports an existing role.
This has created more variety in the types of roles that chemicals professionals can access, meaning that you can go beyond the standard analytical, organic, inorganic and physical fields through to computational and digital positions – opening more doors for candidates who haven’t followed a traditional route into the chemicals industry across the STEM portfolio, from mathematicians, through to computational chemists and statisticians.
These new job profiles include roles like:
- Industrial Data Scientists
- Data Security
- Computational Chemists
- Quantum Scientists
- Molecular modelling
- Chemo informatician
Another wider knock-on effect of digitalisation is the increase in hybrid opportunities. These hybrid positions still require practical chemistry skills alongside more computational capabilities, but there are often opportunities to upskill on the job to bridge any skill gaps.
The nature of training itself has also advanced, with technologies including e-learning, modelling programmes and virtual reality acting as additional aids to the classroom, enhancing training opportunities and outcomes faster.
However, developing training opportunities can also pose a hurdle for businesses, and consequently professionals – gaining access to the right training programmes isn’t always easy in every role due to the financial investment required by companies to create training initiatives in the first place.
Indeed, the educational infrastructure outside of companies and at universities hasn’t quite caught up with the pace of digitalisation in chemicals. While there are follow-on degrees like Masters, and PhD’s that allow chemists to garner technical expertise in digital chemistry, there aren’t enough of them, and these skills are not being introduced early enough in education.
For more experienced chemistry professionals who have been in the industry for many years, digitalisation can create higher level skills gaps and inhibit intra-industry movement, particularly without the right training routes, and access to those training routes in place.
It’s vital to take your own initiative as a professional and invest in digital upskilling wherever access is made possible throughout your education and professional life.
What key digital skills are most in demand in the chemical industry
In this section, I’ll list some key technologies influencing the industry, before delving into the specific skills needed to successfully apply them.
- Virtual reality
- Augmented reality
- Cyber physical systems
- Big data
- Smart Algorithms
- Cloud tech
- 3D printing/Additive manufacturing
- Data analytics
Skills in demand include:
- Machine learning
- Coding - programming languages like Python and R
- Computer aided design
- Computational biology
- Computational chemistry
- Virtual screening
- Data science
- Quantum computing
- Quantum science
- Computer modelling/in silico
Digital upskilling pathways for industrial chemists
While the UK hasn’t quite kept pace with countries like Germany, China or the US in terms of digital education, as a professional you can take the initiative to upskill yourself.
Many colleges offer coding, and digital skills courses as part of extra-curricular activities, it’s worth researching and exploring these options wherever possible on your educational journey.
At university, take the time to assess degree modules on offer – if there are any that link to computational chemistry, coding, or any of the skills listed above, take them. After graduation, if you have the resources, look into post-graduate courses specialising in digital chemistry, or any area you’re most interested in.
As an active professional, look for opportunities to develop further digital capabilities. From free coding courses, to free mentorship opportunities on LinkedIn, to free online university courses offered by universities like Harvard, Manchester, Tokyo, MIT and John Hopkins - taking your career to the next level doesn’t have to be costly, and can be instrumental to ensuring you futureproof your potential in industry.
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About the author: Faye Allison specialises in finding scientists and technical talent for the chemical and materials industries, from purely R&D to analytical testing to manufacturing.
Supporting start-ups and spin-outs as well as SMEs and multinational business, typical roles Faye recruits for include: Development Chemists, Synthetic Chemists, Material Scientists, Research Scientists, Analytical and QC Chemists, Laboratory Technicians, Microbiologists, Technical Leaders/Managers and other similar technical or laboratory associated roles.