Careers in Chemical Technology

Careers in chemical technology are more rewarding today than ever. Technicians are in high demand for bringing valuable skills to the development of new products, processing methods, and materials. As critical members of scientific teams, they are at the heart of operations in the chemical industry, helping to get products and services to customers.

Here’s a more in depth look at careers in chemical technology:

Work Description

Chemical technicians work in every aspect of the chemical process industry, from basic research to hazardous waste management. Research and development technicians work in experimental laboratories, and process control technicians work in manufacturing or other industrial plants. Technicians operate many kinds of equipment and instrumentation, set up apparatus for chemical reactions, prepare compounds, monitor commercial production, test for product quality, and collect and analyze samples produced through organic synthesis. They conduct a variety of laboratory procedures, from routine process control to complex research projects. Technicians also work in data management, quality control, and shipping to provide technical support and expertise for these functions.

Working Conditions

Chemical technicians are vital members of self-directed work teams. They sometimes work independently. Most are hired on a "nonexempt" basis. That is, they work a 40-hour week and are paid overtime for additional work hours. The workday can be very long when it involves big projects. Technicians tend to be on the move during the day, with a variety of responsibilities. They often report to more than one person. Most technicians work indoors, and some work in the field taking samples and measurements.

Places of Employment

Chemical technicians are a growing part of the industrial work force at chemical, engineering, and oil companies. They are employed by federal, state, and local governments, including national research laboratories and government science agencies. Academia also employs technicians. Although the chemical industry employs the largest number of chemical technicians, some work is available in related industries such as polymers, electronics, biotechnology, consumer products, pharmaceuticals, paints, soaps, and fragrances. Some companies have well-defined career ladders for technicians, but generally, dedication and hard work are the main criteria for advancement. Skills are transferable, which gives technicians greater employment choices.

Personal Characteristics

Technicians are people on the go. They often work in more than one laboratory, monitoring experiments and procedures. They must be able to manage multiple projects simultaneously. They have high mechanical aptitude, are creative, and have good observation skills. They describe themselves as problem solvers and say they are self-starters with the ability to think for themselves. Technicians are people who are able to work with their hands, think analytically, and pay attention to detail. Other important qualities include a desire to learn new skills, a willingness to accept responsibility, and a commitment to finishing projects.

Education and Training

A solid background in applied basic chemistry and math is vital, along with skills in using various kinds of equipment and standard labware. An associate’s degree in applied science (A.A.S.) or chemical technology is the best preparation for work in the field. Technicians with such degrees are attractive to employers because they have scientific knowledge and laboratory skills and require less on-the-job training. Community, two-year and four-year colleges offer this degree. Without an A.A.S., most employers prefer two years of specialized training.

Job Outlook

Technicians hold positions with responsibilities that were once 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 workforce.

Some employers hire technicians on a temporary basis without benefits, such as health insurance, though temporary assignments can last as long as a few years. Demand for chemical technicians will continue to increase as automation, new products, and complex production processes become more sophisticated in the chemical industries.

Salary Range

Chemical technicians with an associate's degree command good starting salaries. Salaries vary by geographic location, the technician's education and experience, and the type and size of the company. Salaries have increased for chemical technicians as responsibilities have increased.

In 1995, 45% of new technicians earned $28,000 or less. In 2002 the median salary was $30,000. Experienced technicians earned between $30,000 and $37,000 per year. Technicians with 6 to 10 years of experience earned between $37,000 and $48,000 a year. Some senior-level technicians at large corporations earn as much as $53,000 annually.

What to Do Now

Take courses in chemistry and gain experience using various laboratory equipment. Determine what areas of chemistry are of most interest to you first, and then seek out work experience or academic expertise in these areas while remaining open to other opportunities that may cross your career path.