Consumer Product Chemistry
Offers a Host of Career Opportunities
Look around your home and you'll see many examples of consumer product chemistry. These include products for washing clothes, dishes, windows, floors, tile, and bathroom fixtures. There are waxes and polishes for floors, furniture, shoes, and cars. Personal care products comprise hand and body soaps, hair shampoos and conditioners, toothpastes, cosmetics, and deodorants. Chemists and chemical engineers have a hand in developing all of these products. They also design manufacturing processes for both the ingredient chemicals and the final products you see on store shelves.
Many types of companies participate in developing consumer products-from multi-billion dollar firms doing business on a global scale to very small firms. Basic chemicals are usually manufactured by large chemical companies. Specialty chemicals are produced by large, medium, and small-sized chemical companies. Consumer products themselves are produced by formulating basic and specialty chemicals.
The consumer products industry gives rise to a host of career opportunities for chemists and chemical engineers at all degree levels. The focus on formulations results in more laboratory product development opportunities for bachelor's degree chemists than is the case in many other fields. There are also opportunities for bachelor's and master's degree chemists in chemical manufacturing plants and plants producing consumer products as well as in sales where they may eventually move into marketing and business management positions. Ph.D. chemists and chemical engineers work largely in research positions developing new chemicals and working towards an understanding of the chemical and physical processes occurring when the consumer products are manufactured and used. Many also work in formulation development. Some hold research or business management positions.
Marena Brown, research scientist at Procter & Gamble, works in the area of antimicrobial technology. Her job is to make sure that germ-killing properties are maintained when other scientists alter formulas for laundry products to enhance cleaning capabilities. Brown, who has a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in chemical engineering, says, "I look at what we can incorporate into a product to make it better." She adds, "I enjoy doing research and the problem-solving aspect of my job."
Technical service work is another important area for many chemists. Chemical companies often work in partnership with their customers, developing new formulations and products. Witco Corporation applications group manager James Fuller notes, "What I enjoy most about my job is working with customers to solve their problems." Many other chemists in the consumer products industry agree.
Leverages Multiple Skills
Sound technical skills and familiarity with the end uses of their products enable chemists and engineers to anticipate and meet their customers' needs. However, teamwork, communication, and managerial skills are also important because chemists and chemical engineers must work and communicate with other team members who are not chemists or engineers. Many of the teams include business, sales, and manufacturing personnel as well as environmental and toxicology specialists, and specialists in other areas such as government regulations and shipping. Joint customer/supplier teams are also common in the consumer products industry.
Amway Corporation chemical engineer Susan Youngquist recommends that students develop communications skills. She notes, "If you can't share your ideas, you won't get anywhere." Chemists and engineers must often persuade managers to fund their projects. They have to first convince plant engineers and chemists that they can manufacture a new product and then make the business managers believe that manufacturing it will require a minimum investment, and that they can sell it and make a profit. John Borchardt, a chemist with Shell Chemical Company, says, "Many chemical suppliers in the consumer products industry introduce new products at trade association meetings and in technical seminars with customers." Companies often send chemists to these meetings to present their products. "The ability to give a polished, persuasive presentation is essential to convince prospective customers who are evaluating your product to use it in their formulations.
"Written communications skills are also very important. Consumer product development chemists and engineers write corporate research reports, technical service reports for customers, and articles that are published in conference proceedings and trade magazines.
Research chemists and engineers often need management and supervisory skills and good interpersonal are also useful. Those working in labs sometimes supervise laboratory technicians and those working in plants often supervise plant operators. Consumer product chemists and engineers often work on more than one project at once. They must organize their work to manage these multiple priorities. Hence, planning and time management skills are also important.
Offers Opportunities for Advancement
A wider variety of advancement opportunities are available to chemists and engineers in the consumer products industry as compared to other industries. Most companies offer the option of moving up research or management career ladders or into sales or marketing positions. Chemists and engineers have recognized that their value to a company often hinges on their versatility and flexibility in this changing business environment. Cross training and participation in multi-functional project teams are two excellent ways to improve advancement viability. Amway Corporation chemist Robert Faber comments, "Developing a solid working knowledge of all areas within a company greatly broadens your technical skills and enhances the value of your contributions."
Susan Youngquist, Chemical Engineer
While attending the University of Michigan, Susan Youngquist worked at Dow Chemical Company as a co-op student. First, she worked in production and then in research and development (R&D). From this experience, she decided that she preferred working in R&D. After graduating with a B.S. degree, Youngquist began working for Amway Corporation in R&D. Currently, she is associate group leader of the Home Care Process Development Group. There, she supervises four chemical engineers and four technicians who do process development and manufacturing support R&D. Her responsibilities include laundry products, other household cleaning products (porcelain and tile cleaners, floor cleaners, etc.) and automotive products (waxes, polishes, upholstery cleaners, etc.). Youngquist comments that the most rewarding part of her job is being part of the process of developing a successful new product and getting it into the hands of customers. She adds that this is becoming more difficult to do since the consumer product market is becoming increasingly competitive.
Robert D. Faber
Before receiving his B.S. in chemistry from Calvin College, Bob Faber worked as a summer intern for Upjohn Corporation. He notes, "The most important thing I learned was how to apply academic knowledge to real world problems where business factors are important." After graduating, Faber went to work for Amway Corporation. He has worked on the development of a variety of household and automotive cleaning products. Most recently, he was on the team that developed SCRUB BRITER kitchen/bathroom cleaner, a cleaning product designed to be effective, mild to hands, and non-abrasive. SCRUB BRITE cleaner illustrates that many properties besides effectiveness in the end use must be designed into consumer products.
What Faber likes most about his job is the freedom he has in project design and direction. An increasing amount of time is spent, he explains, complying with federal, state, and foreign country environmental. However, Faber notes that the research necessary to comply with these regulations is a vital part of the product development process.
Kirk Raney, Consumer Products/Research Engineer
Washing machine manufacturers are redesigning their machines to use less water and energy. As a result, a new round of laundry detergent is being developed by researchers such as Kirk Raney, senior research engineer at Shell Chemical Company. He comments, "New detergent chemicals have to be more effective than before in preventing redeposition of soils on clothes, and foam less in this new washing environment." He performs laundering tests in washing machines of various designs and also studies surfactant chemical properties such as foaming, surface tension, and solubility behavior. Raney notes that he works with technicians and often visits laundry detergent manufacturer's laboratories to discuss his findings. Despite it being early in his career, he has presented papers and visited customers in Japan, India, Korea, China, and several European countries as well as traveled extensively in the United States
In mid-career, Judith Zweig is an example of the many professional opportunities available to consumer products chemists. She began her industrial research career as a polymer research chemist at Shell Chemical Company. After several years, she was promoted to research manager of the Surfactant Applications Group. (Surfactants are the active cleaning agents in detergents and many other cleaning products.) A few years later, she became a business development manager supervising commercialization of new surfactants. Then for family reasons, she moved to Connecticut and began working for Olin Corp. as a surfactants research manager. She capitalized on her business skills to become a liaison between the research and business groups. In this assignment, she helped researchers focus on commercially viable opportunities and minimize product development time while providing sales and marketing personnel with the information they needed for successful product commercialization. Currently, Zweig is a consultant with the firm Werner-Gershon Associates. Her primary assignment is preparing technical literature for clients, primarily smaller chemical firms supplying products to consumer products companies. She is very active in an industry-oriented professional association, the Surfactants and Detergents Division of the American Oil Chemists' Society, where she has held a number of offices.
Researchers develop tests that model the end use of the product they are trying to develop and use the tests to relate chemical structure and formulation composition to product performance. They also use these tests in technical service work to determine how well a product will work in a customer's formulation. Statistical design of experiments can reduce the number of tests run and allow better understanding of the effects of chemical structure and formulation composition on performance. Another means of obtaining this understanding is to relate basic chemical and physical properties of chemicals with their performance in the desired application.
Researchers work in laboratories that often contain highly specialized testing equipment. Since researchers often work on several (research and technical service) projects at once, prepare applications literature, and travel with sales representatives to visit customers, their work environment is not an academic one. Team work is a vital part of the product development effort as chemists and engineers often share projects and work with technicians, sales representatives, manufacturing plant personnel, and other specialists. Some chemists and engineers work in manufacturing facilities. Others in sales, marketing, or business management positions work in offices.
Places of Employment
Chemists and chemical engineers are employed in research labs, manufacturing facilities, and business offices of small, medium, and large consumer product, specialty chemical, and basic chemical manufacturing and development companies.
Consumer product chemists and engineers have a broad range of concerns: the effect of a chemical structure on product performance and behavior, the basic chemistry and physics of processes that occur in the end use application, chemical synthesis, and the effect of consumer products on the environment and human health. Their varied activities and responsibilities require good time management and interpersonal skills.
Education and Training
For those wanting to work in chemical sales or in a chemical or manufacturing plant, a bachelor's or master's degree in chemistry or chemical engineering is needed. A minor in a business field is a real career asset, especially in landing your first job. The chemist will benefit from taking chemical engineering courses. Chemical engineers, particularly those working in plants formulating and packaging consumer products, will benefit from courses in other fields-particularly mechanical and industrial engineering. Compared to other industries, a chemist with a bachelor's or master's degree has an easier time advancing in a research career because while not the most sophisticated area of chemical technology, formulation chemistry is often very important in consumer product development. A Ph.D. helps advance a research career. Oral and written communication skills and teamwork skills also enhance chemists' opportunities for advancement Courses in chemical engineering, environmental chemistry, and statistics will prove helpful to researchers. Whatever your degree level and career goals, business courses and courses in business writing or journalism will be very useful in achieving professional success.
Sales of consumer products, and therefore the need for consumer product development chemists in industry, tend to be less affected by the business cycle than many other industries using chemicals. However, some employment opportunities have been reduced at many companies due to reengineering.
For More Information
Soap and Detergent Association
1500 K Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005
Chemical Specialties Manufacturers
1913 Eye Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006
American Oil Chemists' Society
2710 S. Boulder
Urbana, IL 61802-6996
What You Can Do Now
Consumer product manufacturers employ chemists at all degree levels in a variety of areas-for example, polymer chemistry, analytical chemistry, organic chemistry, and pharmaceutical chemistry-to work on a variety of products. Internships and summer jobs at consumer product development companies are useful in deciding what types of developmental activities interest you.