School Subjects: Math, Chemistry
Personal Skills: Technical/scientific
Work Environment: Mostly indoors; Primarily one location
Minimum Education Level: Some postsecondary training
Wage or Salary Range: $17,483 to $36,200 - $56,450
Certification or Licensing: none
Future growth: About as fast as the average
Chemical technicians assist chemists & chemical engineers in the research, development, testing, & manufacturing of chemicals & chemical-based products. Approximately 73,000 chemical technicians work in the United States.
The practice of modern chemistry goes back thousands of years to the when humans began to extract medicinal juices from plants & shaped metals into tools & utensils for daily life. In the late 18th century, chemistry became established as a science when Antoine
Lavoisier formulated the law of the conservation of matter. From that time until the present, the number & types of products attributed to the development & expansion of chemistry are almost incalculable.
The period following World War I was a time of enormous expansion of chemical technology & its application to the production of goods & consumer products such as high octane gasoline, antifreeze, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, plastics, & artificial fibers & fabrics. This rapid expansion increased the need for professionally trained chemists & technicians. The technicians, with their basic chemical knowledge & manual skills, were able to handle the tasks that did not require the specialized education of their bosses. These nonprofessionals sometimes had the title of junior chemist.
During the last 30 years, however, there has been a radical change in the status of the chemical technician from a “mere” assistant to a core professional. Automation & computerization have increased laboratory efficiency, & corporate downsizing has eliminated many layers of intermediate hierarchy. The result has been to increase the level of responsibility & independence, meaning greater recognition of the importance of today’s highly skilled & trained chemical technicians.
Most chemical technicians who work in the chemical industry are involved in the development, testing, & manufacturing of plastics, paints, detergents, synthetic fibers, industrial chemicals, & pharmaceuticals. Others work in the petroleum, aerospace, metals, electronics, automotive, & construction industries. Some chemical technicians work in universities & government laboratories.
They may work in any of the fields of chemistry; such as analytical, biochemistry, inorganic, organic, physical, or any of the many sub-branches of chemistry. For example, chemical engineering professionals develop or improve manufacturing processes for making commercial amounts of chemicals, many of which were previously produced only in small quantities in laboratory glassware or a pilot plant.
Within these subfields, chemical technicians work in research & development, design & production, & quality control. In research & development, chemical laboratory technicians often work with Ph.D. chemists & chemical engineers to set up & monitor laboratory equipment & instruments, prepare laboratory setups, & record data.
Technicians often determine the chemical composition, concentration, stability, & level of purity on a wide range of materials. These may include ores, minerals, pollutants, foods, drugs, plastics, dyes, paints, detergents, chemicals, paper, & petroleum products. Although chemists or chemical engineers may design an experiment, technicians help them create process designs, develop written procedures, or devise computer simulations. They also select all necessary glassware, reagents, chemicals, & equipment. Technicians also per form analyses & report test results.
In the design & production area, chemical technicians work closely with chemical engineers to monitor the large-scale production of compounds & to help develop & improve the processes & equipment used. They prepare tables, charts, sketches, diagrams, & flowcharts that record & summarize the collected data.
They work with pipelines, valves, pumps, & metal & glass tanks. Chemical technicians often use their input to answer manufacturing questions, such as how to transfer materials from one point to another, & to build, install, modify, & maintain processing equipment. They also train & supervise production operators. They may operate small-scale equipment for determining process parameters.
Fuel technicians determine viscosities of oils & fuels, measure flash points (the temperature at which fuels catch fire), pour points (the coldest temperature at which the fuel can flow), & the heat out put of fuels.
Pilot plant operators make erosion & corrosion tests on new construction materials to determine their suitability. They prepare chemicals for field testing & report on the effectiveness of new design concepts.
Applied research technicians help design new manufacturing or research equipment.
You should take several years of science & mathematics in high school, & computer training is also important. While a minority of employers still hire high school graduates & place them into their own training programs, the majority prefer to hire graduates of community colleges who have completed two-year chemical technician programs or even bachelor degree recipients. If you plan on attending a four-year college, take as much as three years of high school mathematics, including algebra, geometry, & trigonometry; three years of physical sciences, including chemistry; & four years of English.
Graduates of community college programs are productive much sooner than untrained individuals because they have the technical knowledge, laboratory experience, & skills for the job. Computer courses are necessary, as computers & computer-interfaced equipment are routinely used in the field. Realizing that many students become aware of technical career possibilities too late to satisfy college requirements, many community & technical colleges that offer chemical technician programs may also have noncredit courses that allow students to meet college entrance requirements.
Approximately 40 two-year colleges in the United States have chemical technology programs. Once enrolled in a two-year college program designed for chemical technicians, students should expect to take a number of chemistry courses with strong emphasis on laboratory work & the presentation of data. These courses include basic concepts of modern chemistry, such as atomic structure, descriptive chemistry of both organic & inorganic substances, analytical methods including quantitative & instrumental analysis, & physical properties of substances. Other courses include communications, physics, mathematics, industrial safety, & organic laboratory equipment & procedures.
Besides the educational requirements, certain personal characteristics are necessary for success as a chemical technician. You must have both the ability & the desire to use mental & manual skills. You should also be patient because experiments must frequently be repeated several times. You should be precise & like doing detailed work. Mechanical aptitude & good powers of observation are also needed. You should be able to follow directions closely & enjoy solving problems. Chemical technicians also need excellent organizational & communication skills. Other important qualities are a desire to learn new skills & a willingness to accept responsibility. In addition, you should have good eyesight, color perception, & hand-eye coordination.
You can explore this field by joining high school science clubs or organizations & taking part in extracurricular activities such as the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS). Science contests are a good way to apply principles learned in classes to a special project. You can also subscribe to ChemMatters, the American Chemical Society’s (ACS’s) quarterly magazine for students taking chemistry in high school. Examples of topics covered in the magazine include the chemistry of lipstick, suntan products, contact lenses, & carbon-14 dating. Also, qualifying students can participate in Project SEED (Summer Education Experience for the Disadvantaged), a summer program designed to provide high school students from economically disadvantaged homes with the opportunity to experience science research in a laboratory environment.
Once you are in college, you can join the student affiliates of professional associations such as the ACS & the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). Membership allows students to experience the professionalism of a career in chemistry. You can also con tact ACS or AIChE local sections to talk with chemists & chemical engineers about what they do. These associations may also help students find summer or co-op work experiences.
Almost all chemical laboratories, no matter their size or function, employ chemical technicians to assist their chemists or chemical engineers with research as well as routine laboratory work. Therefore, chemical technicians can find employment wherever chemistry is involved: in industrial laboratories, in government agencies such as the Departments of Health & Agriculture, & at colleges & universities. They can work in almost any field of chemical activity, such as industrial manufacturing of all kinds, pharmaceuticals, food, & production of chemicals. There are approximately 73,000 chemical technicians currently employed in the United States.
Graduates of chemical technology programs often find jobs during the last term of their two-year programs. Some companies work with local community colleges & technical schools to maintain a supply of trained chemical technicians. Recruiters regularly visit most colleges where chemical technology programs are offered. Most employers recruit locally or regionally. Because companies hire locally & work closely with technical schools, placement offices are usually successful in finding jobs for their graduates.
Some recruiters also go to four-year colleges & look for chemists with bachelor’s degrees. Whether a company hires bachelor’s-level chemists or two-year chemical technology graduates depends on both the outlook of the company & the local supply of graduates.
Internships & co-op work are highly regarded by employers, & participation in such programs is a good way to get your foot in the door. Many two- & four-year schools have co-op programs in which full-time students work approximately 20 hours a week for a local company. Such programs may be available to high school seniors as well. Students in these programs develop a good knowledge of the employment possibilities & frequently stay with their co-op employers.
More & more companies are using contract workers to perform technicians’ jobs, & this is another way to enter the field. There are local agencies that place technicians with companies for special projects or temporary assignments that last anywhere from a month to a year or more. Many of these contract workers are later hired on a full time basis.
Competent chemical technicians can expect to have long-term career paths. Top research & development positions are open to technically trained people, whether they start out with an associate’s degree in chemical technology, a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, or just a lot of valuable experience with no degree. There are also opportunities for advancement in the areas of technology development & technology management, providing comparable pay for these separate but equal paths. Some companies have the same career path for all technicians, regardless of education level. Other companies have different career ladders for technicians & chemists but will promote qualified technicians to chemists & move them up that path.
Some companies may require additional formal schooling for pro motion, & the associate’s degree can be a stepping-stone toward a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Many companies encourage their technicians to continue their education, & most reimburse tuition costs. Continuing education in the form of seminars, workshops, & in-company presentations is also important for advancement. Chemical technicians who want to advance must keep up with cur rent developments in the field by reading trade & technical journals & publications.
Earnings for chemical technicians vary based on their education, experience, employer, & location. The U.S. Department of Labor reports the median hourly wage for chemical technicians as $17.40 in 2001. A technician making this wage & working full time would earn a yearly salary of approximately $36,200. The top 10 percent earned $27.14 per hour (or $56,450 annually) or more in 2001. The department also reports that science technicians (a category including chemical technicians) working for the federal government had starting salaries ranging from $17,483 to $22,251, depending on their qualifications, in 2001. The average yearly salary for physical science technicians working for the federal government was $42,657 in 2001. Salaries tend to be highest in private industry & lowest in colleges & universities.
If a technician belongs to a union, his or her wages & benefits depend on the union agreement. However, the percentage of technicians who belong to a union is very small. Benefits depend on the employer, but they usually include paid vacations & holidays, insurance, & tuition refund plans. Technicians normally work a five-day, 40-hour week. Occasional overtime may be necessary.
The chemical industry is one of the safest industries in which to work. Laboratories & plants normally have safety committees & safety engineers who closely monitor equipment & practices to minimize hazards. Chemical technicians usually receive safety training both in school & at work to recognize potential hazards & to take appropriate measures.
Most chemical laboratories are clean & well lighted. Technicians often work at tables & benches while operating laboratory equipment & are usually provided office or desk space to record data & prepare reports. The work can sometimes be monotonous & repetitive, as when making samples or doing repetitive testing. Chemical plants are usually clean, & the number of operating personnel for the space involved is often very low.
The U.S. Department of Labor expects employment for all science technicians to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations over the next several years. Chemical technicians will be in demand as the chemical & drug industries work to improve & produce new medicines & personal care products. Chemical technicians will also be needed by businesses that provide environmental services & “earth-friendly” products, analytical development & services, custom or niche products & services, & quality control. Growth, however, will be somewhat offset by a general slowdown in overall employment in the chemical industry.
Graduates of chemical technology programs will continue to face competition from bachelor’s level chemists. The chemical & chemical-related industries will continue to become increasingly sophisticated in both their products & their manufacturing techniques. Technicians trained to deal with automation & complex production methods will have the best employment opportunities.
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Marion Stabile currently works as a chemist with Halox, a manufacturer of raw materials for the paint & coatings industry. She spoke about her previous job as a chemical lab technician for True Value Manufacturing.
Q. Please briefly describe your work as a chemical technician.
A. My main duties as a lab technician were to perform tasks as assigned by the research & development manager. This ranged from organizing & cleaning raw material shelves, to making paints in the lab, to entering formula information into the computer. I worked from 7 A.M. to 3:30 P.M., Monday through Friday. The laboratory was indoors, sectioned off from the paint manufacturing lines. Only minor travel was required to attend informational seminars & classes—only about 5 percent of the time.
Q. How did you train for this job? What was your college major?
A. I majored in chemistry in college, though the training was mostly on the job. My chemistry major gave me a good understanding of the theories used on the job, which in turn helped me to advance to higher positions. The report writing & math formulas taught in my chemistry classes were also very beneficial.
Q. Did you participate in any internships or apprenticeships?
A. I interned at A. E. Staley, Inc. (a corn refinery) in Decatur, Illinois, during one summer & my last year of college. My experience as an intern taught me the basic skills used in the “real world” & how to use expensive pieces of equipment to measure physical characteristics of products—equipment that was unavailable to me in school. I also learned the importance of keeping an organized laboratory note guide for reference purposes.
Q. How/where did you get your first job in this field? What did you do?
A. I got my first job as a lab technician with True Value Manufacturing by responding to an ad in the newspaper. I actually went to the job site to apply. I was called for an interview & was offered the position a few days later. On the same day, however, I “pound ed the pavement” to deliver several resumes to other employers in the area.
Q. What kinds of sources are available to someone looking to get into this field?
A. There are paint & coating societies located throughout the nation that offer courses in formulating & scholarships for students looking to get into the industry. There is also an international trade show, the International Coatings Expo (ICE), which is held annually. ICE offers a technical symposium & highlights the latest innovations in the coatings industry.
Q. What are the most important personal & professional qualities for chemical technicians?
A. You must be able to multi-task. Also, you must have good communication & interpersonal skills to be able to interact with different departments & sometimes with the manufacturing personnel. With a good attitude & friendly personality, others will help you to learn & make your job that much easier.
Q. What were some of the pros & cons of working as a chemical technician?
A. Pros: The hours were great, I learned a lot, & the job was mainly stress free. I also enjoyed being able to see the product go from concept to final product. As a technician, I could inter act with several different departments, learn the art of manufacturing, & didn’t have to spend a lot on business clothes.
Cons: It was a “dirty” job, cleaning & working with paint, harsh solvents, & chemicals.
Q. What is the most important piece of advice that you have to offer college students as they graduate & look for jobs as chemical technicians?A. Expect to start at the bottom, but know that with enough hard work & a good attitude, you can work your way up quickly.