Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What is the unemployment rate for chemists?

What is the unemployment rate among chemists? Surprising that I haven't asked such a fundamental question, but an assertion by Kinetix on "In the Pipeline" that the current US unemployment rate for chemists was greater than 25% got me thinking and looking.

According to the ACS salary survey, the rate of unemployment ("unemployed/seeking employment) amongst chemists was 2.3% in 2008. If you expand the definition to include part-time workers and postdocs (heh), you get a rate of 7.5%. While I personally think that's stretching it, there's some precedent, in that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has a U6 unemployment rate that includes "discouraged workers", "marginally attached workers" and part-time workers who wish to work fulltime. Considering U6 unemployment in the US is 16.8% while the official unemployment rate is 9.5%, I can see a disbelief of the ACS' remarkably low number of 2.3%.*

I expect that the number for the 2009 salary survey will show a "U3-like" unemployment rate among ACS members at 5%, with the "U6-like" total rate around ~12%.

Twenty-five percent? I don't think so.

*It's worth noting that I haven't been able to find other sources about chemist unemployment, like a BLS number. Anyone have an idea?


  1. There is definitely something wrong with the ACS numbers for unemployment. I think if we take the definition of employment in its strictest sense, yes they are right, 2.3% of ACS member don't have plain jobs.

    But is everyone employed at their capacity? What's the use of pumping more PhDs into a market if they are all taking jobs that don't utilize their skills? That's underemployment.

    If underemployment is used than the 25% may sound more reasonable. 2.3% are definitely without jobs, but a whole lot more are trying to get a job that employs them at their capacity.

  2. Looking back on my previous comment and your analysis, I think your numbers may be better. I was thinking more about the class I will be graduating in (25% for us) but 12% overall is reasonable.

  3. Speaking as an UNDERemployed (= de facto unemployed) PhD chemist, I find the comments coming from the Obama staff (I voted for the guy) on "combatting" unemployment amongst scientists to be particularly outrageous. Especially from Holdren, who insists that there need to be yet more positions for PhDs and postdocs. While, together with Chu from the DOE current funding is for (a) big infrastructure and (b) PhD/postdoc jobs.

    Who as these guys kidding? My take on it is that they are simply protecting their status quo at Berkeley, MIT and Harvard (both of these guys have faculty jobs with at least one of these institutions).

  4. A7:20:

    Could you explain further? I'm curious, and a little unsure as to what you mean.

  5. ACS surveys do not measure unemployment among chemists. They measure unemployment rate among ACS members. And tell you what - at my last place there were predominantly two kinds of ACS members - people fresh out of school, where they paid the discount rate, and managers who didn't have to pay. Bench folks with some experience? Almost none of them cared for ACS membership.

  6. A8:35:

    While I agree that the ACS survey numbers are not fully representative of the potential market, I challenge you to find numbers that read differently.

    For example, jgo has put together BLS data here:

    Interestingly, those numbers are not too different than ACS's.

  7. Well, it's encouraging to learn that the unemployment rate for chemists is just a quarter of national average rate.

  8. @7:20

    Underemployed for example is a Post-Doc doing the same thing they did in graduate school. They have been (supposedly) trained to take on the capacity to instruct and direct research, but they are doing neither. They are employed but society cannot employ them at full capacity, a waste of time and resources.

  9. I just graduated with a Bachelors degree in chemistry as well as an ACS Certification, and I have still yet to get a chemistry job; however, I work part time at King Soopers (wish to be working full time). Does that make me employed? No it makes me underemployed. In fact of the 15 different chemists that graduated with me non of them have yet to get chemistry jobs.

  10. We need standards that allow us to advance through industrial research, continuing education and training. We need to stop academia from over supplying narrowly trained PhD's that society has a hard time finding a place for.

    Japan has ronbun policy for industrial researchers. They can achieve an industrial doctorate by submitting a thesis on their work. This sounds like a much better way to balance supply and demand for chemists.

    Anyone that is smart enough can advance at a company and will not be held back because they couldn't eat cup o' noodle for five years.