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Chemical engineers apply the principles of chemistry and engineering to solve problems involving the production or use of chemicals. They design equipment and develop processes for large scale chemical manufacturing, plan and test methods of manufacturing the products and treating the by-products, and supervise production. Chemical engineers also work in a variety of maufacturing industries other than chemical manufacturing such as electronics, photographic equipment, and pulp and paper mills.
Because the knowledge and duties of chemical engineers cut across many fields, they apply principles of chemistry, physics, mathematics, and mechanical and electrical engineering. They frequently specialize in a particular operation such as oxidation or polymerization. Others specialize in a particular area such as pollution control or the production of specific products such as automotive plastics or chlorine bleach. Chemical engineers are increasingly using computer technology to optimize all phases of research and production; therefore they need to understand how to apply computer skills to process analysis, automated control systems, and statistical quality control.
Chemical engineers held about 48,000 jobs in 1998. Manufacturing industries employed over 70 percent of all employees, primarily in the electronics, petroleum refining, paper, chemical, and related industries. Most others worked for engineering services, research and testing services, or consulting firms that design chemical plants. Some also worked on a contract basis for government agencies or as independent consultants.
Chemical engineering graduates may face keen competition for jobs as the number of openings is projected to be substantially lower than the number of graduates. Employment of chemical engineers is projected to grow
as fast as the average for all occupations though 2008. Although overall employment in the chemical manufacturing industry is expected to decline, chemical companies will continue to research and develop new chemicals and more efficient processes to increase output of existing chemicals. Among manufacturing industries, specialty chemicals, plastics materials, pharmaceuticals, and electronics may provide the best opportunities. Much of the projected growth in employment of chemical engineers, however, will be in nonmanufacturing industries, especially services industries.
Median annual earnings of chemical engineers were $64,760 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $49,360 and $81,520. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $41,380 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $92,240.
According to a 1999 salary survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, bachelors degree candidates in chemical engineering received starting offers averaging about $46,900 a year; masters degree candidates in chemical engineering, $52,100; and Ph.D. candidates in chemical engineering, $67,300.
(See introduction to the section on engineers for information on working conditions, training requirements, and sources of additional information.)