The field is changing and expanding, and the demand for qualified technical workers will keep job opportunities growing.
Particularly strong areas of growth are the medical, biotechnology, and environmental management and testing industries.
- Two-year associate degree in an A.A.S.
- B.S. degree is common but not required
- Good foundation in applied basic chemistry and math
- Experience using various kinds of standard labware is needed
- Computer and oral/written skills
- Median annual wage: $42,920 (2012)
Chemical technicians play a vital role in a variety of industries by working with chemists and chemical engineers to develop, test, and manufacture chemical products. These technicians are highly skilled scientific professionals who are critical members of scientific teams that conduct much of the hands-on work that is required. Some technicians assist senior researchers in the laboratory, but many work independently to collect valuable information for review. Chemical technicians work in laboratories, making sure that processes are carried out safely, cost-effectively, and according to the highest professional standards.
Chemical technicians work in every aspect of the chemical process industry—from basic research to hazardous waste management. For some people, accepting a chemical technician position is a great way to test the waters before deciding whether to join the industrial chemistry workforce on a permanent basis, while others may want to dive right in and enjoy a variable and rewarding lifetime career.
Types of Chemical Technicians
- Laboratory technician—operates standard laboratory equipment and conducts laboratory procedures ranging from routine process control to complex research projects
- Process technician—performs chemical tests and experiments for quality, performance, or composition
Typical Work Duties
- Set up apparatus for chemical reactions
- Help devise and troubleshoot syntheses and analytical procedures
- Manage databases
- Ensure that packaging of hazardous materials complies with regulations
- Work in pilot plants, assisting engineers with running experiments in a miniature version of a manufacturing process
In the past, most chemical technicians were trained on the job. Today, industry demands a solid foundation in applied basic chemistry and math, plus experience using various kinds of standard labware. Computer knowledge and oral and written communication skills are also required.
The best preparation is a two-year associate degree in an applied science (A.A.S.) program designed to prepare people for a career in chemical technology, which is currently offered at over 100 community and two-year colleges. Some companies hire chemists with a B.S. degree as technicians, but this is not always required.
Chemical technicians are vital members of self-directed work teams in chemical and related industries and government agencies, with a few in academic institutions. Most are hired on a “nonexempt” basis—that is, they work a 40-hour week and are paid overtime for additional work hours. Some employers hire technicians on a temporary basis without benefits, such as health insurance, even though some temporary assignments last as long as a few years. The workday can be very long when involved with big projects. Chemical technicians tend to be on the move during the day and have a variety of responsibilities. They often report to more than one person. Most technicians work indoors, but a few work outdoors taking samples and measurements.
Is This Career a Good Fit for You?
Technicians are people on the go who often monitor experiments and procedures in more than one laboratory; therefore, they must have good time management skills and be able to manage multiple projects simultaneously. They have high mechanical aptitude, are creative, and have good observation skills. Described as problem solvers and self-starters, technicians are independent thinkers who possess strong analytics skills, are detail oriented, and are able to work with their hands. Other important qualities include a desire to learn new skills, a willingness to accept responsibility, and a commitment to finish a project.
- Interest in scientific and technical areas
- Familiarity with common laboratory equipment, instrumentation, and analytical techniques
- Observational and recordkeeping skills to track conditions, procedures, deviations, and results of experiments
- Analytical and critical thinking skills to evaluate not only the results of experiments but also the procedures used to obtain them
The education of a chemical technician does not stop when entering the chemical industry. Continuing one’s professional development is important because of the additional responsibilities technicians have today. As a result of the hands-on knowledge they have accumulated, many technicians decide to continue their formal education to obtain higher degrees and do so with support from their employers.
Some companies have well-defined career ladders for technicians, but, dedication and hard work are generally the main criteria for advancement. Other abilities such as adaptability, organizational skills, personal motivation, customer focus, and teamwork are also considered when looking at advancement potential. Skills are often transferable, and technicians today are more able to move between companies than they have been in the past.
Future Employment Trends
Technicians now hold positions with responsibilities that in the past were only assigned to Ph.D. s and engineers. The field is changing and expanding, and the demand for qualified technical workers will keep job opportunities growing. Particularly strong areas of growth are the medical, biotechnology, and environmental management and testing industries. Government laboratories will be tougher places to find jobs because of funding cutbacks and incentive programs for retaining the present work force.
Anneliese Schmidt earned a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in math.
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