Chemical Engineering


Quick Facts: Chemical Engineers
2017 Median Pay $102,160 per year 
$49.12 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education Bachelor's degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training None
Number of Jobs, 2016 32,700
Job Outlook, 2016-26 8% (As fast as average)
Employment Change, 2016-26 2,500

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Chemical Engineering Career, Salary and Education Information

What Chemical Engineers Do

Chemical engineers apply the principles of chemistry, biology, physics, and math to solve problems that involve the production or use of chemicals, fuel, drugs, food, and many other products. They design processes and equipment for large-scale manufacturing, plan and test production methods and byproducts treatment, and direct facility operations.

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Chemical Engineering

Duties of chemical engineers

Chemical engineers typically do the following:

  • Conduct research to develop new and improved manufacturing processes

  • Establish safety procedures for those working with dangerous chemicals

  • Develop processes for separating components of liquids and gases, or for generating electrical currents, by using controlled chemical processes

  • Design and plan the layout of equipment

  • Conduct tests and monitor the performance of processes throughout production

  • Troubleshoot problems with manufacturing processes

  • Evaluate equipment and processes to ensure compliance with safety and environmental regulations

  • Estimate production costs for management

Some chemical engineers, known as process engineers, specialize in a particular process, such as oxidation (a reaction of oxygen with chemicals to make other chemicals) or polymerization (making plastics and resins). Others specialize in a particular field, such as nanomaterials (extremely small substances) or biological engineering. Still others specialize in developing specific products.


Work Environment for Chemical Engineers

Chemical engineers held about 32,700 jobs in 2016. The largest employers of chemical engineers were as follows:

Engineering services: 13%

Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences: 9%

Petroleum and coal products manufacturing: 6%

Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing: 6%

Wholesale trade: 4%

Chemical engineers work mostly in offices or laboratories. They may spend time at industrial plants, refineries, and other locations, where they monitor or direct operations or solve onsite problems. Chemical engineers must be able to work with those who design other systems and with the technicians and mechanics who put the designs into practice.

Work Schedules

Nearly all chemical engineers work full time. Occasionally, they may have to work additional hours to meet production targets and design standards or to troubleshoot problems with manufacturing processes. About 2 out of 5 chemical engineers worked more than 40 hours per week in 2016.


How to Become a Chemical Engineer

Chemical engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering or a related field. Employers also value practical experience, so internships and cooperative engineering programs, in which students earn college credit and experience, can be helpful.

Education

Chemical engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering or a related field. Programs in chemical engineering usually take 4 years to complete and include classroom, laboratory, and field studies. High school students interested in studying chemical engineering will benefit from taking science courses, such as chemistry, physics, and biology. They also should take math courses, including algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.

At some universities, students can opt to enroll in 5-year engineering programs that lead to both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. A graduate degree, which may include a degree up to the Ph.D. level, allows an engineer to work in research and development or as a postsecondary teacher.

Some colleges and universities offer internships and/or cooperative programs in partnership with industry. In these programs, students gain practical experience while completing their education.

ABET accredits engineering programs. ABET-accredited programs in chemical engineering include courses in chemistry, physics, and biology. These programs also include applying the sciences to the design, analysis, and control of chemical, physical, and biological processes.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Chemical engineers must troubleshoot designs that do not work as planned. They must ask the right questions and then find answers that work.

Creativity. Chemical engineers must explore new ways of applying engineering principles. They work to invent new materials, advanced manufacturing techniques, and new applications in chemical and biomedical engineering.

Ingenuity. Chemical engineers learn the broad concepts of chemical engineering, but their work requires them to apply those concepts to specific production problems.

Interpersonal skills. Because their role is to put scientific principles into practice in manufacturing industries, chemical engineers must develop good working relationships with other workers involved in production processes.

Math skills. Chemical engineers use the principles of advanced math topics such as calculus for analysis, design, and troubleshooting in their work.

Problem-solving skills. In designing equipment and processes for manufacturing, these engineers must be able to anticipate and identify problems, including such issues as workers’ safety and problems related to manufacturing and environmental protection.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Licensure for chemical engineers is not as common as it is for other engineering occupations, nor is it required for entry-level positions. A Professional Engineering (PE) license, which allows for higher levels of leadership and independence, can be acquired later in one’s career. Licensed engineers are called professional engineers (PEs). A PE can oversee the work of other engineers, sign off on projects, and provide services directly to the public. State licensure generally requires

  • A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program

  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam

  • Relevant work experience, typically at least 4 years

  • A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam

The initial FE exam can be taken after one earns a bachelor’s degree. Engineers who pass this exam are commonly called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After meeting work experience requirements, EITs and EIs can take the second exam, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE).

Each state issues its own licenses. Most states recognize licensure from other states, as long as the licensing state’s requirements meet or exceed their own licensure requirements. Several states require engineers to take continuing education to keep their licenses.

Other Experience

During high school, students can attend engineering summer camps to see what these and other engineers do. Attending these camps can help students plan their coursework for the remainder of their time in high school.

Advancement

Entry-level engineers usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers. In large companies, new engineers also may receive formal training in classrooms or seminars. As junior engineers gain knowledge and experience, they move to more difficult projects with greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions.

Eventually, chemical engineers may advance to supervise a team of engineers and technicians. Some may become architectural and engineering managers. Preparing for management positions usually requires working under the guidance of a more experienced chemical engineer.

An engineering background enables chemical engineers to discuss a product’s technical aspects and assist in product planning and use. For more information, see the profile on sales engineers.


salaries for Chemical Engineers

The median annual wage for chemical engineers was $102,160 in May 2017. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. 

In May 2017, the median annual wages for chemical engineers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences: $107,250

Petroleum and coal products manufacturing: $107,050

Engineering services: $106,740

Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing: $97,810

Wholesale trade: $92,400


Job Outlook for chemical engineers

Employment of chemical engineers is projected to grow 8 percent from 2016 to 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Demand for chemical engineers’ services depends largely on demand for the products of various manufacturing industries. The ability of these engineers to stay on the forefront of new emerging technologies will sustain employment growth.

Many chemical engineers work in industries whose products are sought by many manufacturing firms. For instance, they work for firms that manufacture plastic resins, which are used to increase fuel efficiency in automobiles. Increased availability of domestically produced natural gas should increase manufacturing potential in the industries employing these engineers.

Job Prospects

The need to find alternative fuels to meet increasing energy demand while maintaining environmental sustainability will continue to require the expertise of chemical engineers in oil- and gas-related industries. In addition, the integration of chemical and biological sciences and rapid advances in innovation will create new areas in biotechnology and in medical and pharmaceutical fields for them to work in. Thus, those with a background in biology will have better chances to gain employment.

Employment projections data for Chemical Engineering, 2016-26

Employment, 2016: 32,700

Projected Employment, 2026: 35,100

Change, 2016-2026: +8%, +2,400


Careers Related to chemical engineers

Architectural and Engineering Managers

Architectural and engineering managers plan, direct, and coordinate activities in architectural and engineering companies.

Biomedical Engineers

Biomedical engineers combine engineering principles with medical sciences to design and create equipment, devices, computer systems, and software used in healthcare.

Chemical Technicians

Chemical technicians use special instruments and techniques to help chemists and chemical engineers research, develop, produce, and test chemical products and processes.

Chemists and Materials Scientists

Chemists and materials scientists study substances at the atomic and molecular levels and analyze the ways in which the substances interact with one another. They use their knowledge to develop new and improved products and to test the quality of manufactured goods.

Nuclear Engineers

Nuclear engineers research and develop the processes, instruments, and systems used to derive benefits from nuclear energy and radiation. Many of these engineers find industrial and medical uses for radioactive materials—for example, in equipment used in medical diagnosis and treatment.

Occupational Health and Safety Specialists and Technicians

Occupational health and safety specialists and technicians collect data on and analyze many types of work environments and work procedures. Specialists inspect workplaces for adherence to regulations on safety, health, and the environment. Technicians work with specialists in conducting tests and measuring hazards to help prevent harm to workers, property, the environment, and the general public.

OccupationENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION2017 MEDIAN PAY
Architectural and Engineering ManagersBachelor's degree$137,720
Biomedical EngineersBachelor's degree$88,040
Chemical TechniciansAssociate's degree$47,280
Chemists and Materials ScientistsBachelor's degree$76,280
Nuclear EngineersBachelor's degree$105,810
Occupational Health and Safety Specialists and Technicians$67,720

Citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Chemical Engineers,
on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/chemical-engineers.htm