Tuesday, October 15, 2013

ACS Presidential candidate Chuck Kolb on #chemjobs issues

I've contacted the 3 ACS presidential candidates, Bryan Balazs, Charles Kolb, Jr. and Diane Grob Schmidt and asked them if they would like to comment on jobs related to chemistry employment and unemployment. Charles Kolb, Jr. has now responded. His comments are below:

CJ: Which ACS program do you think best helps the job-seeking ACS member? How would you improve it?

Dr. Kolb: Since I have been fortunate enough not to need ACSʼs career services I cannot speak from personal experience. I have heard good things about the personal career consulting service that features volunteer ACS members who provide practical advice on things like job search strategies, interviewing techniques, negotiating advice and resume preparation. These consultants are currently available remotely by e-mail and phone or in person at national and regional meetings. I suspect that face-to-face interactions work best.

I do know from personal experience that local section meetings are effective networking events. I wonder if formalizing confidential career consulting services at the local section level, using well-connected section members as career consultants, would be more convenient and effective, especially for members desiring to avoid relocating.

CJ: Is it ACS policy to get more students to study in STEM fields, specifically chemistry? If so, how do we reconcile the fact that wages for chemists are stagnant or falling? Does this argue against the idea of a STEM shortage and the need for more STEM students?

Dr. Kolb: I do not think that STEM jobs are a zero sum game, where if someone else gets a chemistry job it forever decreases anotherʼs chance of  employment. There is a tremendous amount of science and technology that must be done if we want to sustain and enhance our economy, security, health and environment. Vectoring more bright and capable students away from STEM careers will not help. We need as many smart, articulate and entrepreneurial scientists and engineers as we can get, especially if they are properly prepared and motivated to revamp old organizations and found new ones that will create the more effective and efficient products and processes that we require.

For instance, when I joined the company I now lead, I was employee number 7 and the only chemist. Today we have 75 employees, 25 are chemists or chemical engineers. We need more STEM graduates, but we need them equipped with the communication skills, the understanding of scienceʼs real role in the modern world, and the imagination to create tomorrowʼs science and technology organizations. Thatʼs how enough productive STEM jobs can be created.

CJ: Each ACS president candidate, for at least the past decade, knows the challenging job market facing ACS members and inevitably speaks of "growing jobs" in the US. Specifically, what tangible steps would you take to increase the number of chemistry jobs in the US, and is this something you think is really achievable?

Dr. Kolb: As indicated in Response #2 above, I think it is both possible and necessary if we want our children and grandchildren to live as well or better than we do. As I indicated in my ACS Policy statement, quoted below, one important step is to help both current and future ACS members be prepared to “seize the future:”
“Nearly all of the critical challenges facing our world have significant chemical components. ACS must help our current and future members better understand how their vision and their skills can contribute to a more prosperous and sustainable future. The fact that too many ACS members are unemployed or under-employed, while most global challenges need chemical insight and innovation to be addressed successfully, is a travesty. ACS needs to develop more effective ways to help current and future members orient their interests and capabilities to successfully address critical problems. ACS also needs to motivate both private and public investments to ensure resources exist to fund the science needed for progress.” 
If I am fortunate enough to be elected I am pledged to work hard with other interested ACS members to achieve the goals stated above.

CJ: How would you describe ACS' response to the Great Recession and the increase in unemployment amongst its members? How should ACS respond to similar situations in the future? 

Dr. Kolb: It seems to me that ACSʼs current career services are designed to help individual members to find and compete more successfully for the pool of current jobs, which is too shallow. I believe we need to work to deepen the pool by empowering members to identify how their interests and skills can be used to discover the new science and technology the world needs.

If there is no organization interested in the work they envision, we should encourage them to create their own jobs. The US government distributes more than 2.5 billion dollars of research and development funding each year in Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding to develop novel defense, health, energy, transportation and environmental technologies. Since 2002 I have served on a National Research Council committee that evaluates the SBIR program for Congress and the participating federal agencies. Our reports show that many small businesses, including very small, newly formed companies, win SBIR funding that leads to the creation of important new technologies and generates high technology jobs.

Finally, we need to start these activities now and help prevent, not wait for, the next recession.

Thanks to Dr. Kolb for his responses. The final candidate, Dr. Schmidt, will have her response published within 24 to 48 hours after it has been received. 


  1. Seems like the only tangible solution he offered for improving employment is for people to start their own companies. I just don't see that happening for most recent graduates who are facing student debt and trying to start families.

    1. Don't forget to mention that depending on the desired field entrepreneurship may simply be not be a possibility. Between EPA, FDA, USDA and other alphabet soup governing bodies, there would need to be substantial investment into overhead to just get off the ground. The world of garage chemistry turned success story is long gone.

  2. It is this type of psychology that has been so pervasive within the ACS over the five decades I have been a chemist. It is why salaries have been depressed since the late 60s and why today after more than a decade of highly specialized schooling even some of our brightest chemists find it difficult to secure employment or maintain long-term careers or even jobs.

    Starting a chemistry company is just not done in one's garage anymore. It requires a lot of capital up front to secure an equipped laboratory, to pay the costs of getting multiple permits, and to pay for all kinds of costly demands on waste handling, chemical inventory control and worker safety.

    Now what is the pay-line one SBIRs? Is 5%, 10% or ?? What is the pay-line on chemistry-based SBIRs? Is it vanishingly small, 0.005%, 0.01% or ?? The paperwork to get and subsequently justify the use of the money is more costly than the money grant provided in my experience. Additionally like all grants, the timeline to actually getting money in the bank is about a year so what do you do to pay your rent while you are waiting for a rejection letter?

    I have been a part of a chemistry start-up. It no longer exists because our investors would rather do chemistry in a cheaper locales like India or China.

    This guy has a tin ear like every ACS hack. My advice is boycott the ACS until it actually cares more about its members than its publishing empire.

    1. Furthermore, I think phase I SBIR money is something like $150k. Depending on what you want to do, it may be possible to get something bootstrapped for that much, oftentimes, that is just enough money to equip your lab. This entrepreneurship chant that has started within the ACS seems to be carried on by people that don't know what they are doing. If the ACS is so interested in entrepreneurship, they need to start a seed/angel fund themselves, as many sources of seed capital are not geared toward the large capital expenditure that is required for serious chemical work. If a VC can spend $50-100k as seed money for a software or web based company and know the outcome of their investment in 6 months, there is no need for investment in a company that may have a substantial exit in 6 years.

      Future ACS leadership: you are asking us to lift ourselves by our bootstraps while we are barefoot.

    2. Well, Madeline Jacobs of the ACS make nearly a million a year, so I dont think its unreasonable to ask her for seed money.

    3. Not too mention, many new businesses fail. You have to have something that people will buy, not something that you just think is cool.

  3. "I have been fortunate enough not to need ACSʼs career services" I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

    "I do not think that STEM jobs are a zero sum game" Says the person who wants to be elected to a singular position. I'm sure unemployed and underemployed chemists can take comfort in this.

    "We need more STEM graduates" Just ask Kelly Services, chemists are expensive. Some earn in excess of $10/hr!

  4. MOAR chemistry students *sigh*

  5. If I had intentionally worked on creating the worst possible response to this series of questions, I'm pretty sure I still wouldn't have been this far off base. His response to the question, "What tangible steps would you take to increase the number of chemistry jobs in the US?" not only does not contain tangible steps, but it is also a canned quote from a previously written statement. That's basically like saying, "I don't really have any ideas, and I don't think it's worth my time to come up with any."

    A comment on his advice to use the ACS career counseling services: I have a technician who volunteers for this. His writing skills are atrocious -- probably the worst I've ever seen from a native English speaker. Yet, he goes to every ACS meeting and helps people with their resumes. The ACS obviously doesn't screen the people volunteering in these positions, and while some may be fantastic, others will be quite poor, given this lack of quality control.

    1. hey now,

      "develop more effective ways to help current and future members orient their interests and capabilities to successfully address critical problems"

      that sounds pretty tangible to me

  6. I just attempted to vote only to find this useless link: http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/about/governance/elections/howtovote.html

    This page does not lead you to the link required to vote. Please, someone tell me what I am missing? If you must find your mailed hardcopy for the link to vote this is likely contributing to the poor voter turnout numbers.

    1. I was e-mailed my ballot on October 4, fwiw.

    2. ...as in, I'm looking at the ballot in my e-mail inbox, and it is dated October 4.

    3. Interesting sidenote: I let my membership lapse this year. The electronic C&ENs stopped immediately, but somehow I managed to still receive a paper ballot in the mail. Apparently not paying your dues does not entitle you to read their electronic publication, but does entitle you to vote for offices.

  7. " I think it is both possible and necessary if we want our children and grandchildren to live as well or better than we do."
    Yuck. I don't have grandchildren. Don't have children. Not planning to. What about offering something to help ME live better in the near future instead of giving me some nebulous platitude about how science will help other people's offspring. Or at least something about helping dogs and their puppies. Yes, do it for the puppies.

  8. Wow. (Not a good "wow").