Careers in chemical engineering

Chemical engineers apply the principles of biology, chemistry, physics and maths to solve problems related to the large-scale production of chemicals, fuel, drugs, food and a range of other vital products.

An innovative and multidisciplinary branch of engineering, chemical engineering spans a wide variety of industries, processes and job roles. Many of the products that are used in everyday life – from food additives to laundry detergent – are designed and developed by chemical engineers.

Given its importance to the functioning of society, chemical engineering is one of the most highly sought-after careers in the life sciences. 

Whether you’re looking for a process engineer role in the petroleum sector or an energy engineer role at a leading multinational, chemical engineering is an exciting profession offering plenty of scope for continuing professional development and travel.

But how do you start a career as a chemical engineer? To help you in your job search, we’ve put together this chemical engineer job profile exploring what it’s like to work in this challenging industry.

What does a chemical engineer do?

Chemical engineers draw on their expertise in various disciplines to effectively develop and transform raw materials into a diverse range of useful products (for example, making plastics from oil). They develop and design manufacturing processes and equipment, plan and test production methods, and direct facility operations. The role focuses on many aspects of plant design and operation, including safety and risk assessments, product development, process design and analysis, modelling, control engineering, chemical reaction engineering, nuclear engineering, biological engineering, construction specifications, and operating instructions. It can range from working with nanotechnology in the laboratory to directing the large-scale industrial processes that convert raw materials into everyday products.

Work environment

The bulk of a chemical engineer’s time is spent in an office or laboratory environment. However, engineers will also monitor or direct operations at industrial plants, refineries, and other large-scale manufacturing locations, as well as solving onsite problems. Most chemical engineers work on a full-time, 9-to-5 schedule.

Responsibilities

Duties vary depending on the industry, employer or location. On a day-to-day basis, chemical engineers design processes and equipment for manufacturing, plan and test production methods, and establish rigorous health and safety procedures for people working with dangerous substances. Other responsibilities include:

  • Conducting research to develop pioneering new manufacturing processes and products
  • Liaising with process chemists and control engineers to ensure process plants run efficiently and provide maximum output levels
  • Troubleshooting problems in existing manufacturing processes and rectifying the issues
  • Overseeing the design, installation and commissioning of new production plants
  • Ensuring safe working conditions and compliance with health and safety regulations
  • Estimating production costs for management
Broadly speaking, engineers in the chemical sector work in one of four areas: design, research and development (R&D), operations or commissioning. 

Types of chemical engineering jobs

Chemical engineers work in a range of roles in a range of manufacturing industries — from upstream oil and gas operations to winemaking. Other industries include food and drink, fibres and polymers, plastic and metals, and toiletries.

The following job titles are related to chemical engineering:

  • Chemical engineer
  • Manufacturing engineer
  • Petroleum engineer
  • Plastics engineer
  • Process engineer
  • Safety engineer

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Is chemical engineering a good career?

Despite a lack of understanding from the general public about what the profession entails, chemical engineering is a fantastic career choice for anyone with a strong grounding in maths and science.

As a chemical engineer, you’ll get to work alongside colleagues from different social and technical backgrounds from all across the globe. Working in a highly collaborative environment, you will be required to solve a spate of technical challenges as part of a close-knit team.

There’s also plenty of opportunity for research and development (R&D). Most graduates or entry-level chemical engineers work under the supervision of more experienced senior chemical engineers. Larger companies may also offer graduate programmes and formal training to new engineers.

Aside from being open to travel, you’ll also have to keep a finger on the pulse of the latest trends in the sector. Given that natural resources are finite, a global drive away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy is likely to shake up the industry.

Are chemical engineer jobs in high demand?

Job opportunities in the chemical engineering sector largely depend on the demand for the products of various manufacturing industries. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, global employment for chemical engineers is expected to grow 6% in the next decade. This means chemical engineer jobs are readily available in a wide range of locations.

How much do chemical engineers earn?

The average chemical engineer salary in the UK is around £32,000. According to the Institution of Chemical Engineers, the median starting salary for a chemical engineer is around £28,600. Salaries can rise to between £30,000 and £60,000 with experience, though this depends on the level of expertise and the industry that you work in. The median salary for chartered chemical engineers is around £78,500.

Which companies hire chemical engineers?

Major employers of chemical engineers include:

  • BASF
  • BP
  • Bristol-Myers Squibb
  • ExxonMobil
  • Goodyear
  • Unilever

How to become a chemical engineer

A career in chemical engineering is a big commitment, but it’s also extremely rewarding. Here are the things you’ll need to become a chemical engineer.

Qualifications

As a minimum requirement for entry-level positions, you’ll need a graduate (BEng) or postgraduate MEng) degree in chemical engineering or a related field. Some of the relevant degree courses that universities offer include:

  • Biochemistry
  • Chemical engineering
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • Software engineering

Gaining a PhD in any of these fields can also make you a more attractive proposition for employers.

Chemical engineering is an exceptionally broad field, so students studying a related subject should think about which specialism (e.g. petroleum exploration or material and polymers) they wish to pursue. 

Finally, it’s also worth gaining as much laboratory experience as possible. Chemical engineering internships are one such way to boost your skills and employability. Another is industrial placement, which is a form of work experience intended to supplement your degree with professional development.

Skills and experience

For mid- to senior-level positions, academic qualifications alone will not be enough. When applying for chemical engineering roles, it’s important to demonstrate:

  • An understanding of the principles of engineering and mathematics
  • Analytical and problem-solving skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Meticulous attention to detail
  • Industry knowledge
  • Commercial and business awareness

Of course, it’s also worth bearing in mind that requirements will vary from company to company.

Chartered membership

Though not mandatory, gaining chartered chemical engineer accreditation can lead to enhanced career prospects.

The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), which is licensed by the Engineering Council, is the UK’s leading professional qualifying body for chemical, biochemical and process engineers.

To become eligible for Chartered Member (MIChemE) status with IChemE, you’ll need to demonstrate an advanced knowledge of chemical engineering and its applications. If your degree is fully accredited by IChemE, you already meet the required level. 

Candidates also need to demonstrate professional experience and complete a Competence and Commitment (C&C) report.

 

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