Monday, February 8, 2016

Manager thinks chemists need to be flexible and are appropriately paid, news at 11

Also in this week's C&EN, some responses to Donna Nelson's presidential address about chemist employment issues. There's an interesting comment about chemical engineers and their salaries; it attempts to transfer some of the quantitative skills of engineers (without, of course, making comments about the relative supply of chemical engineers. (There were 34,000 in 2014, as opposed to 93,500 chemists.) And then there's this gem: 
Nelson is seeking to better understand the demand side of chemical employment, with fewer inquiries into the supply side. From my 37-year career view, most of it on the managerial side, I would suggest that the larger issue is actually on the supply side: the employability of chemists, which stems from their versatility, flexibility, and adaptability. These attributes are derived from both personal characteristics and educational experiences. And the education part is strongly influenced by those same personal characteristics. 
I found early on that chemists were about the most employable specialists in our economy. They weren’t the highest paid, but they had the widest range of possible employment situations, shared with few others. To me, the rate-limiting step in employability comes from the attributes previously mentioned. Anything that enhances those attributes in the selection and training of chemists will transcend any specifics regarding how the job landscape is changing. 
I don’t think that spending a lot of time and effort on the other factors described in Nelson’s article will be anywhere near as productive as the issues mentioned previously. Instead, I suggest that she and her study group focus on the unique qualities that are presented by individuals trained in chemical science and engineering and how that contributes to their employability in a continuously changing marketplace. In short, it’s how readily employees can adapt to changing conditions around them that determines their long-term value to their employers, particularly in an environment with a continuously increasing change rate. 
To begin, one might refer to the academic studies conducted at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management under professor Edward Roberts (I’m most familiar with his group’s work), plus similar work at Northwestern University and others. They collectively published quite a bit about the versatility, flexibility, and adaptability issues, which led chemists to be employable well beyond conventional chemical research, development, and production positions. That describes the capability of a group of people, which allows them to adapt to whatever specifics that may appear in the future. 
Lou Floyd
Independence, Ohio
You peons never mind about what us managers are up to, just make sure to brush up on your transferrable skills!

The inability of some managerial types to express any sort of empathy or have some level of emotional intelligence about their employees is on full display in that letter. There's not a hint of data, or an attempt to grapple with the negative-trending statistics about chemist employment or wage stagnation. 


  1. What skills is he wanting (other than to know everything and to be willing to be paid peanuts, although I don't know if that counts as a skill)? When a whole bunch of jobs go away, and none appear to have been created (here), it doesn't seem like networking or expanded skills sets are going to help so much - there are still going to be a bunch of cheeseless mice, and the mice that aren't cheeseless aren't going to get much cheese. If there's nowhere to transfer the skills to, then the concept of "transferable skills" has as much evidence in reality as the concept of "honest management".

    As someone who hasn't searched for a job lately, I thought employers were looking (when they have actual) jobs for people with specific technical knowledge, so that they don't have to train them. If you want people to fit particular exact roles without training, then where are people going to get transferable skills (because you sure aren't going to be training them or valuing people who have them)? What good is having "transferable skills" if they don't help you get another job?

    As a sidebar, given the ability of lots of companies' managements to manage their businesses out of existence, what "transferable skills" do their managements they have? If such skills are necessity for continued employment for peons, why are they irrelevant for management's employability?

    1. If employers are willing to train people and expect them to stay around in the long term, then individual training in transferable skills (and for employers, advocating such) makes sense because your employees can pick up the technical knowledge you need them to have, and the employer has some hope of finding employees willing to be flexible to help them achieve their goals - the flexibility of employees is rewarded by the ability to lots of things and to be paid to do them. If employers are looking for particular skills and knowledge and don't expect to have any long-term investment in their employees, then advocating "transferable skills" as a method of improving individual employability isn't worth the CO2 emitted while speaking or writing the words. Which employment world does it look like we live in?

    2. Is it possible that managers want skills/abilities that for legal/HR reasons cannot be included in job ads? I mention this only because both sides speak about a data set (job ads/openings) that contains only 0's and 1's and complain about the lack of 5's and 13's (figuratively speaking).
      If the clues to finding solutions are not in the data set then studying this data set is an exercise in futility. Which is the one thing both sides seem to agree.

    3. What kinds of skills would be unable/illegal to be discussed but would be relevant for chemistry? I didn't think anyone was hiring people without "does this one play well with others" questions, which could get into sketchy territory, but other than that, I assumed that most of the questions that couldn't be asked weren't for good reasons (e.g. race, religion, age, etc.)

    4. I confess, I have no managerial experience so I don't know what details are not published in job ads. What I saw repeatedly was the disconnect between the data (the ads) and the comments from managers. I also tracked a few Glassdoor interview reports to the likely ads and noticed that the candidates mostly remembered parts that were not mentioned in the ads.
      I did find some correlation, although my data set is small for now. For example, "works well under stress" in an ad usually means that assertive, organized, and goal-oriented candidates need not apply.
      The H1B idea would fit here and there are legal reasons why a job ad can't include "no need to apply, we already have our guy". Perhaps "only docile candidates needed" is an example of a marketing downer....

  2. They all want other suckers to train the newbies.

  3. Has this guy read a chemistry job posting in the last twenty years? They don't want "flexibilty" or other ill-defined gobbledygook. They want hyper-precise purple unicorn clones of their H1B candidate.

  4. Key words: "my 37-year career view"

  5. I googled this guy's name. He worked in the coatings industry for a long time, and apparently is retired. He's got to be in his 70s.
    Like he knows what it's like to look for a job nowadays.
    I want to puke every time I read one of these letters to the editor.
    I can't help but wonder - in his many illustrious years as a manager, how many people did he lay off?

  6. Even if you have 'transferable skills,' this doesn't help when the job ad requires 3-5 years of experience in a different field. Even if I could use MS Project after viewing the tons of YouTube videos or taking online classes on this topic, it wouldn't be the same as OTJ experience to an employer. Nobody wants to train, and there is still a massive surplus of unemployed (ahem - in transition) workers in the system trying to obtain employment in white collar positions.