What Chemical Engineers Do
Chemical engineers apply the principles of chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics 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.
Duties of Chemical Engineers
Chemical engineers typically do the following:
In addition, chemical engineers work in the production of energy, electronics, food, clothing, and paper. They must understand how the manufacturing process affects the environment and the safety of workers and consumers.
Chemical engineers also conduct research in the life sciences, biotechnology, and business services.
Work Environment for Chemical Engineers
Chemical engineers held about 34,300 jobs in 2014. The industries that employed the most chemical engineers were as follows:
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.
Some engineers travel extensively to plants or worksites, both domestically and abroad.
Chemical Engineer Education
Chemical engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. Programs 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 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 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 for Chemical Engineers
Analytical skills. Chemical engineers must be able to troubleshoot designs that do not work as planned. They must be able to ask the right questions and then find answers that work.
Creativity. Chemical engineers must be able to 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 calculus and other advanced topics in mathematics 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.
Chemical Engineer Salaries
The median annual wage for chemical engineers was $96,940 in May 2014. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $59,480, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $156,980.
In May 2017, the median annual wages for chemical engineers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
A 2016 survey report by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers indicated that the median yearly salary of those with no supervisory responsibility was $106,300.
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.