Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Older chemists face difficulty finding positions

From mid-December comes an WSJ unemployment story from an older academic chemist (which I find pretty unusual):
Many older Americans fear they will be working well into their 60s because they didn't save enough to retire. Millions more wish they were that lucky: Without full-time jobs, they are short of money and afraid of what lies ahead. 
Deborah Kallick was a professor of biomedical chemistry at the University of Minnesota until she ventured into the private sector in 2000 with a job in genome research. She is now one of more than four million Americans aged 55 to 64 who can't find full-time work. That number has nearly doubled in five years, according to U.S. Department of Labor figures in October.
Ms. Kallick, 60 years old, has been unemployed since 2007 and lives in the Northern California home of an ex-boyfriend. She has run out of unemployment insurance, used up most of her retirement savings and is indebted to relatives and credit-card companies. 
A good job could settle her accounts, she said. Until then, Ms. Kallick relies on generosity, occasional consulting work and the sale of sweaters, purses and other possessions on eBay.
"It is very hard to work through this and learn to be calm and happy day to day," said Ms. Kallick, who never married. "It has taken a lot of strength and courage to learn to do that."
A brief search of LinkedIn (with login) will reveal that she actually became a tenured professor and then left for the biotech field. One presumes that she may be regretting leaving a relatively secure position; I think she's to be commended for a gutsy call. The article goes on to describe that the average tenure of unemployment for people 55 to 64 is 56.6 weeks of unemployment. There's also a #chemjobs-aspect to this in that Ms. Kallick is in the 8.4% of chemists 60-69 (the highest age decile next to the 70+ group) who are listed as unemployed.

That's shocking. That also indicates that the typical advice for having an emergency fund of six months is probably 50% too small, especially for older people. (Although, one notes from the article, that for people older than 20 (that is, darn near everyone), the average length of unemployment is longer than 26 weeks. Uh-oh.)

Best wishes to us all.

27 comments:

  1. Well, I guess the biotech industry did look pretty good back in 2000 (bubbles never stop getting bigger, do they?) and pay at UMN then (and likely still) was probably pretty dismal. Also, people talk funny in MN, though they are soooooooooooo nice!

    Still a pretty sad story, both for the woman involved and for older chemists (and I assume most chemist become older chemists....). There, to my recollection, are not a lot of oldsters in labs. Where exactly do old chemists go? Some make the jump to management, but there just aren't that many positions/chemist.

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  2. I think this is a real problem for people 50+. I just don't see it getting any better with high unemployment, either. That's why proposals to raise the retirement age and Medicare eligibility age are completely insane.

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  3. There, to my recollection, are not a lot of oldsters in labs.

    Define 'oldster'.

    There are (were) plenty of folks at my shop in their 50s until the last couple of layoffs. Couple that with a lack of hiring new folks, some groups are getting long in the tooth. There are plenty of young chemists in China ready to replace us, I'm sure.

    In the case of big pharma, many companies have (had) pension plans, which means that, historically, people didn't need to work into their 60s in order to retire somewhat comfortably. When I started in the mid 90s, the boom time in pharma gave folks some really nice retirement accounts through 401K gains, stock splits and the like.

    Clearly things changed over the years, and for many, pension plans no longer exist and 401K aren't growing quite like they used to...

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  4. "Define 'oldster'"

    >45 or so. Please note, this will include me in fewer years than I care to admit.

    "pension plans"

    What's that? Is that one of those big flat things that you spin on a table, and when you drop a needle on it it makes a sound?

    401K gains? Good luck with that. Unless folks have been smart (lucky) enough to trade in and out, the S&P at 1250 is about where it was in early 1999, minus at least 27% (more if you use real inflation, not BS CPI #) that has vanished. Most people would have been better off burying their 401ks in a pickle jar (though I'm sure the PMs getting 2% annually to do nothing would disagree).

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  5. Boo:

    1. Where should folks put their money, other than canned goods, gold and ammo? I like VFINX just as much as the next idiot; my PM gets 0.15%.

    2. What inflation index do you use, instead of CPI?

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  6. "1. Where should folks put their money, other than canned goods, gold and ammo?"

    I honestly don't have a good answer. Lots of hedge funds with big smart employees working 24/7 on this question lose money (looking at you Paulson, you too Tilson....)....and still charge 2%.

    I'd be careful of canned goods (they go bad after a while) and Au. If I had to choose from those 3, I'd go with ammo.

    "What inflation index do you use, instead of CPI?"

    ~3%. Not certain it's more accurate, but it makes me feel good.

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  7. @bbooooooya

    The point of my post what to reinforce that 20 years ago pensions and stock gains would allow folks to work into their mid 50s then move on, which is why you typically didn't see people working into their 60s.

    Clearly this is not the case today, although my company still has a fully funded pension plan as well as a 5% match for our 401Ks. At the very least you gain a bit of cash with this type of a match if you're smart. I am not assuming I'll take a pension, but if they let me go before then, at least I'll get a bit of cash to throw into a money market.

    As for 'oldsters', I'm not sure where you worked before, but there have always been a fair number of folks in that age range working in the labs in large pharma since I've been in the industry, typically at the BS/MS level. Obviously those positions are becoming few and far between.

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  8. I don't know where the WSJ got the numbers, but the unemployment rate for age 50+ scientists booted out in the Wyeth Pfizer takeover is approximately: everyone

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  9. So she took a gamble, and left a job that had lifetime employment guarantee, seems to pay ca. 100k these days and lost. So, exactly why I have to feel sorry for her?

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  10. anonymous@ 6.00 AM
    No she does not want your sympathy but understanding and comradeship. My point was during other times as a scientist it would have been easy to find job even at 60+ age. During these normal times, those trends are gone! The fact of the matter is, the dust has not settled and when all is over we still do not know what the job market landscape is going to look like?

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  11. No sympathy. If you are good at what you do, and can prove it, you should not be unemployed. If you leave one job for another, you should not compromise your security. When I was studying I was told not to go into theory because there were no jobs there. I was encouraged to go into bio-physics, which was hot at the time. I did what I enjoyed and the jobs followed

    There is a misconception that times are hard now. I have heard that statement throughout my life--times are always said to be hard--how many times have you heard some pundit say. "In these difficult times....". In fact it is priorities, not money that is the issue, but the truth is, if you are good, and want to be employed, then you will be. Unemployment is usually a result of lack of skills or performance, and the inability to be flexible.

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    1. Update on Kallick. She will have had a brief job that could have been full time for her at a junior college as a chem teacher. She is not gone yet, but at the end of spring semester mark my words, she will be in the unemployment line looking for a handout. Let me just say, she believes people should have "vertical respect" for her. I had to look that one up. People need to respect someone because of their titles basically. Students and faculty have serious issues with her. She is rude, can't teach chemistry, and takes weeks to grade an exam given to 15 students. Don't get on her bad side because she is bad news and can probably benefit from some chemicals herself.

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  12. "There is a misconception that times are hard now."

    While I'm sympathetic to the thought that times are always a little hard, the highest unemployment rates for chemists/ACS members in 20 years is not a misconception.

    "but the truth is, if you are good, and want to be employed, then you will be. Unemployment is usually a result of lack of skills or performance, and the inability to be flexible."

    While I'm somewhat sympathetic to the spirit of this statement, I regret to say that, as written, this is really, really wrong. For example, if an industrial chemist finds themselves at the wrong end of a site closure, this hardly has anything to do with their quality as a chemist nor their flexibility.

    Dr. Sanctuary, I encourage you to read through The Layoff Project and make generalizations about skills, performance and flexibility. Also, I encourage you to think deeply about the modern Western innovation economy and see if there is any room to change your statement.

    Cheers, CJ

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  13. Thanks for your insight and indeed I have not read The Layoff Project and should (but I am busy preparing new lectures on Phase Equilibrium for my physical chemistry courses and am behind).

    We see every day the demise of species due to environmental changes. We all know that if an animal cannot adapt, it will die.

    It struck me some time ago, that is what happens to us too. People who cannot adapt to change actually die. We hear of marital breakdown and the sometimes terrible consequences that follow. Same happened in Russia after perestroika--life expectancy plummeted. This harsh fact of life means that we must adapt and be flexible. Change causes chaos for those who cannot adapt. If an industry folds and people are made redundant, and those left out do not adapt, find new strengths and respond to the currant needs, they will die sooner than later. History is full of this.

    Of course we should try to help, as you are doing, and be involved but fundamentally if a person cannot adapt, s/he will die. Reality can be pretty grim. Tuum Est.

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    1. I have to laugh at this faculty member (Sanctuary) who says "adapt or die." He is under no pressure to adapt...gets a paycheck no mater what until he retires. Laughable.

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    2. @NMH: I wholeheartedly agree with you. Demanding adaptation to any change no matter how large is ludicrous. Adapting to O2-free conditions cannot be reasonably done regardless of how pressing the need. It is so easy to point a finger at someone else with accusations of not being human enough.

      Dr. Kallick does not elicit my sympathy as a person based on the brief WSJ story and today's update from Anon. However, from recent developments in executive dysfunction treatment I know that the kind of "non-adaptation" described here can have biological and behavioral basis.

      If my guess is right these symptoms are surprisingly easy to treat with proper and very specialized care. No medicinal chemistry needs to be involved.

      If successful, Dr. Kallick could return to productive life, full functioning, and leave the alleged nastiness behind her. Do we (as a society) care for that outcome, or do we want to follow Dr. Sanctuary's recipe?

      Again, all this is based on my guess and observation of a few cases with similar description.

      P.S. Why do I have a feeling that I will pay dearly for this comment? Sigh....

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    3. @SJ: I largely agree with your comments. Her employment options are limited by her age (now 60) and history (a gap of unemployment looks really bad, which is extremely unfortunate). However, her vbeing a difficult person, has anon suggests, may kill her chance of getting any kind of job in science if it results in a mediocre reference.

      My guess is that she is an angry and bitter person. Rehabilitation for her, I suspect, could be very difficult: her mental justifications for her bitterness could be perfectly reasonable, and its hard for scientists to ignore reasonable arguments.

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    4. @NMH: That may be. Or, may be not. That kind of anger and bitterness and EF deficiency often has a more fundamental background.

      All of these are just guesses and ideas. Even if the guess is correct this won't change her into a likable person, just functional.

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  14. Thank god Bryan Sanctuary was not one of my professors, as I probably would have either dropped or beat him with a 2x4. Must be easy to say "Welp, I guess you'll just have to die!" when you're gainfully employed. "Forget you, I got mine!" You're a pretty terrible human being if you actually believe all that.

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  15. "We see every day the demise of species due to environmental changes. We all know that if an animal cannot adapt, it will die.

    It struck me some time ago, that is what happens to us too. People who cannot adapt to change actually die."

    You're applying evolutionary theory to the lifetime of a single person. It can't be done. I've got another example. A person who is traditional and lives in their home village and their twin brother who moves to the big city, becomes secular, and gets a good job as a government worker. Then the Egyptian revolution happens, radical Islamist are in power and the secular twin in Cairo is killed for insulting the prophet or dies of hunger, while the traditional twin is doing okay back home in the village on the farm. So, not doing anything or adopting yourself to new circumstances appears to be the right choice over the long term there.

    Bottom line is, this thinking fails. A single person does not represent the Darwinian theory of evolution.

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  16. "Thank god Bryan Sanctuary was not one of my professors"

    Actually, he was one of mine. In retrospect, I can see how this Darwinian thinking was applied back in quantum; especially on the final. Anyways, I'm trying to address the argument despite the fact that I know Sanctuary personally, as attacking the person is not such a good way to argue, especially against someone who is kind/brave enough not to be anonymous...

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  17. The truth Dr. Sanctuary is just an old academic, out of touch with the real world. He does not have to deal with outsourcing and layoffs. There have been tens of thousands of chemists laid off in the past 5-10 years, with not much to absorb them. With the enormous amount of talent out there, employees can hire an individual based on specific skill(s), and are not interested in retraining most of these folks.

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  18. It is easy for Dr. Sancutary to cast stones from his brick house. Lectures about 'adapting to change' should not be coming from professors lounging behind the benefits of tenure. Keep spouting lies to your students professor! Keep the supply of cheap graduate student labor flowing!

    Like to see how he would survive if he was a Pfizer employee facing possible layoffs once or twice a year. Being the best or the brightest chemist is no longer enough in industry. You need a fair amount of luck to get you by too.

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  19. Well you guys are right. I was too harsh and in fact I believe that human society has compassion and tries to help those in need. Also I have known individuals who were at the top in their field, but a policy shift made them redundant. It was hard for them to re-adjust, but they did.

    Also it is correct that tenure gives the right to pursue controversial research, which I am doing. I was tempted once to go into Industry because the salary was more than double (it wasn't Pfizer), but I decided against it, and do not regret it. A few years later the company had severe financial problems and likely I would have been laid off.

    True too, I am not in touch with the chemical industry. I do theory and for that tenure gives stability to do controversial research.

    Actually when it comes to teaching, I think I am a bit of a softy, although I do tell them not to believe anything I tell them!

    Anonymous said:

    "With the enormous amount of talent out there, employees can hire an individual based on specific skill(s), and are not interested in retraining most of these folks."

    This seems to be the problem. The enormous chemical industry is interested in the bottom line, not people. Are we producing too many chemists?

    Anyway, your comments reflect diverse opinions which are always welcome.

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  20. "Are we producing too many chemists?"
    Yes!!!

    The problem is not only academia's fault. Industry will bring in interns, coops, and postdocs during hiring freezes and even worse (during layoffs). Nice that these folks get some experience, but where are they supposed to go when they get done with school? What about the folks who couldn't do internships during school due to personal reasons? Where are the graduates' jobs, when all postings are temporary resume builders for 'current students' only? How is using interns, coops, and postdocs to do a large part of industrial R&D not contributing to the oversupply of scientists and engineers? Is it just a business ploy to get scientific talent dirt cheap? Or just a massive facade to have US industrial chemists train their future replacements (foreigners in the US on education visas) as the remainder of the scientific jobs go to developing economies?

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  21. Bryan Sanctuary (Dr.) said..."Same happened in Russia after perestroika--life expectancy plummeted. This harsh fact of life means that we must adapt and be flexible. Change causes chaos for those who cannot adapt. "

    that is very cruel bit of theorizing. In reality, "adaptation" resulted in skills loss, brain drain and ruin of soviet science net. It will be an enormous loss if something like that happen in America or in the western world in general. It does not push us forward but rather decades back.

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