Unemployment for Chemists

The current C&E News has an article (actually a series of articles) on unemployment in the chemical industry. While the country hits double digit unemployment, ACS members are experiencing unemployment at 3.8%, up from 2.3% last year. Aside from my reaction to the number (something like “only 3.8%?!”), it is at least clear that it is a rising problem and these are record unemployment levels for ACS members.

A simple glance at the business pages tells the same story. Big Pharma has laid off a lot of people in the last year, whether part of a mega-merger or just to streamline and cut costs. The C&E News article says something I myself have said – that eventually companies have to stop cutting costs and start making things again, that they will need people to do that.

I started wondering where exactly they would get the people to do that, assuming that they do. I foresee a modest growth in the companies themselves – they can’t stand still while new talent comes on the market, but they have spent all this time and money streamlining their operations. It would seem foolishness to undo all that effort. So it would seem logical that they would do what they can in-house and outsource the remainder. That in turn would suggest a further spur to the growth of research activities in China, India and Eastern Europe. The infrastructure and knowledge is growing in these places – any American entrepreneurs wanting to get in on this potential market will have their work cut out competing against the cheaper work force available overseas. Some will undoubtedly profit from such deals, whether because the pharma company doesn’t want to let the project too far away or because of a history of success between the two entities – it is sometimes worth paying more for something, especially if you have built up a level of trust with the people doing the drug discovery for you. It does feel like it will be a challenge for small companies in the U.S. and there may be a period of transition while they adapt to the new way of doing things in the reborn economy. I can imagine a number of U.S. companies acting as a liaison between Big Pharma and the overseas researchers.

The bottom line here is that a lot of people in research have lost jobs in the U.S. in the last year or two and frankly, I don’t see all those jobs coming back. It seems a terrible waste that many skilled chemists will be unable to find work in their chosen profession, but I fear that will be the harsh reality.

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