Chemical Manufacturing Industry (Except Drugs)

Significant Points

Nature of the Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Goods and services. Chemicals are an essential component of manufacturing and are vital to industries such as construction, motor vehicles, paper, electronics, transportation, and agriculture. Although some chemical manufacturers produce and sell consumer products such as soap, bleach, and cosmetics, most chemical products are used as intermediate products for other goods.

Industry organization. Chemical manufacturing is divided into seven segments, six of which are covered here: basic chemicals, synthetic materials, agricultural chemicals, paint, coatings, and adhesives, cleaning preparations, and other chemical products. The seventh segment, pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing, is covered in a separate statement.

The basic chemicals segment produces various petrochemicals, gases, dyes, and pigments. Petrochemicals contain carbon and hydrogen and are made primarily from petroleum and natural gas. The production of both organic and inorganic chemicals occurs in this segment. Organic chemicals are used to make a wide range of products, such as dyes, plastics, and pharmaceutical products; however, the majority of these chemicals are used in the production of other chemicals. Industrial inorganic chemicals usually are made from salts, metal compounds, other minerals, and the atmosphere. In addition to producing solid and liquid chemicals, firms involved in inorganic chemical manufacturing produce industrial gases such as oxygen, nitrogen, and helium. Many inorganic chemicals serve as processing ingredients in the manufacture of chemicals, but do not appear in the final products because they are used as catalysts—chemicals that speed up or otherwise aid a reaction.

The synthetic materials segment produces a wide variety of finished products as well as raw materials, including common plastic materials such as polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and polystyrene. Among products into which these plastics can be made are loudspeakers, toys, PVC pipes, and beverage bottles. This industry segment also produces plastic materials used for mixing and blending resins on a custom basis. Motor vehicle manufacturers are particularly large users of synthetic materials.

The agricultural chemicals segment, which employs the fewest workers in the chemical industry, supplies farmers and home gardeners with fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and other agricultural chemicals. The segment also includes companies involved in the formulation and preparation of agricultural and household pest control chemicals.

The paint, coating, and adhesive products segment includes firms making paints, varnishes, putties, paint removers, sealers, adhesives, glues, and caulking. The construction and furniture industries are large customers of this segment. Other customers range from individuals refurbishing their homes to businesses needing anticorrosive paints that can withstand high temperatures.

The cleaning preparations segment is the only segment in which much of the production is geared directly toward consumers. The segment includes firms making soaps, detergents, and cleaning preparations. Cosmetics and toiletries, including perfume, lotion, and toothpaste, also are produced in this segment. Households and businesses use these products in many ways, cleaning everything from babies to bridges.

The "other chemical" products segment includes manufacturers of explosives, printing ink, film, toners, matches, and other miscellaneous chemicals. These products are used by consumers or in the manufacture of other products.

Chemicals generally are classified into two groups: basic chemicals and specialty chemicals. Basic chemical manufacturers produce large quantities of basic and relatively inexpensive compounds in large plants, often built specifically to make one chemical. Most basic chemicals are used to make more highly refined chemicals for the production of everyday consumer goods by other industries. Conversely, specialty chemical manufacturers produce smaller quantities of more expensive chemicals that are used less frequently. Specialty chemical manufacturers often supply larger chemical companies on a contract basis. Many traditional chemical manufacturers are divided into two separate entities, one focused on basic and the other on specialty chemicals.

The chemical industry segments vary in the degree to which their workers are involved in production activities, administration and management, and research and development. Industries that make products such as cosmetics or paints that are ready for sale to the final consumer employ more administrative and marketing personnel. Industries that market their products mostly to industrial customers generally employ a greater proportion of precision production workers and a lower proportion of unskilled labor.

Recent developments. Nanotechnology will continue to benefit all of the manufacturing industries. The advantages of the applications of nanotechnology have far from reached their limits, but research and development in nanotechnology are both expensive and time consuming. In the chemical manufacturing industry, developments in nanotechnology will help conserve energy needed to produce chemicals and reduce the amount of waste products, making the manufacturing process more efficient.

Some localities are imposing or considering restrictions on the use of plastic bags, a product of the chemical manufacturing industry. Whether the outcome is a ban on plastic bags or a tax on plastic bags, demand for such bags will be affected negatively. In addition, many grocery stores offer reusable bag discounts for customers who forgo the plastic bags.

Working Conditions[About this section] [To Top]

Hours. Manufacturing chemicals usually is a continuous process; once a process has begun, it cannot be stopped when it is time for production workers to go home. Split, weekend, and night shifts are common, and workers on such schedules usually are compensated with higher rates of pay. The industry employs relatively few part-time workers.

Work environment. Most jobs in chemical manufacturing are in large establishments. In the basic chemical manufacturing segment, large establishments that employed 50 or more workers in 2008 provided 80 percent of the industry's jobs. The plants usually are clean, although machines that run constantly sometimes are loud and the interior of many plants can be hot. Hardhats and safety goggles are mandatory and worn throughout the plants.

Hazards in the chemical industry can be substantial, but they generally are avoided through strict safety procedures. Workers are required to have protective gear and extensive knowledge of the dangers associated with the chemicals being handled. Body suits with breathing devices designed to filter out any harmful fumes are mandatory for work in dangerous environments.

In spite of the hazards associated with working with chemicals, extensive worker training in handling hazardous chemicals and chemical company safety measures have resulted in injury and illness rates for some segments of the chemical industry that are much lower than the average for the manufacturing sector.

Employment[To Top]

The chemical manufacturing industry employed about 560,000 wage and salary workers in 2008.

Chemical firms are concentrated in regions where other manufacturing businesses are located, such as the Great Lakes region near the automotive industry. Chemical plants also are located near the petroleum and natural gas production centers along the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana. Because chemical production processes often use water, and chemicals are primarily exported by ship all over the world, major industrial ports are another common location of chemical plants. Texas, New Jersey, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Illinois are the nation's top chemical producers.

Most segments of the industry had substantial numbers of jobs, as shown in table 1. Under the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), workers in research and development (R&D) establishments who are not part of a manufacturing facility are included in a separate industry: research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences. However, because of the importance of R&D work to the chemical manufacturing industry, chemical-related R&D workers are discussed in this statement but are not included in the employment data.

Table 1. Distribution of wage and salary employment in chemical manufacturing, except pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing, by detailed industry, 2008 (Employment in thousands)
Industry Employment Percent
Chemical manufacturing, except pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing, total 560.0 100.0
  Basic chemical manufacturing 152.1 27.2
  Soap, cleaning compound, and toilet preparation manufacturing 108.2 19.3
  Resin, synthetic rubber, and artificial synthetic fibers and filaments manufacturing 105.4 18.8
  Paint, coating, and adhesive manufacturing 62.8 11.2
  Pesticide, fertilizer, and other agricultural chemical manufacturing 36.1 6.4
  Other chemical product and preparation manufacturing 95.4 17.0

Occupations in the Industry[To Top]

About 53 percent of those employed in the industry worked in production and in installation, maintenance, and repair occupations. Another 12 percent worked in professional and related occupations. Another 11 percent worked in office and administrative support occupations and 10 percent worked in management, business, and financial occupations (table 2).

Production occupations. Workers in production occupations operate and fix plant machinery, transport raw materials, and monitor the production process. Improvements in technology gradually are increasing the level of plant automation, reducing the number of jobs in production occupations. Chemical plant and system operators monitor the entire production process. The operator is responsible for the efficient operation of the chemical plant. Chemical plant operators generally advance to these positions after having acquired extensive experience and technical training in chemical production processes. Experienced operators sometimes advance to senior supervisory positions.

Industrial machinery mechanics and machinery maintenance workers keep the sophisticated industrial machinery running smoothly. They typically repair equipment, install machines, or practice preventive maintenance in the plant. Workers advance to these jobs through apprenticeships, through formal vocational training, or by completing in-house training courses.

Inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers ensure that the production process runs efficiently and that products meet quality standards. They refer problems to plant operators or managers. A high school diploma is sufficient for basic product testing. Complex precision-inspecting positions are filled by those with experience and knowledge of the chemical manufacturing industry's products and production processes.

Packaging and filling machine operators and tenders wrap products and fill boxes to prepare the final product for shipment or sale to the wholesaler or consumer. More than half of these jobs are in the soap and cosmetics industry because of the amount of packaging needed for this industry's consumer products. A high school diploma and short-term on-the-job training are the most common level of education and training for this occupation.

Transportation and material moving workers use industrial trucks to move materials around the plant or to deliver finished products to customers. For these jobs, employers seek experienced workers with knowledge of chemical hazards, safety procedures, and regulations governing the transport of hazardous chemicals. Learning to operate an industrial truck or tractor can be done with on-the-job training, but previous experience driving a truck and a commercial driver's license generally are required to operate a tractor-trailer carrying chemicals. Some jobs in transportation and material movement are open to workers without experience. Workers in these jobs move raw materials and finished products through the chemical plant and assist motor vehicle operators in loading and unloading raw materials and chemicals. They learn safe ways to handle chemicals on the job and develop skills that enable them to advance to other occupations.

Professional and related occupations. Most workers in professional and related occupations conduct research and develop chemical products.

Chemists and materials scientists carry out research over a wide range of activities, including analyzing materials, preparing new materials or modifying existing ones, studying chemical processes for new or existing products, and formulating cosmetics, household care products, or paints and coatings. They also try to develop new chemicals for specific applications and new applications for existing chemicals. The most senior chemists sometimes advance to management positions. Although chemical companies hire some chemists with bachelor's degrees, a master's or doctoral degree is becoming more important for chemist jobs.

Chemical engineers design equipment and develop processes for manufacturing chemicals on a large scale. They conduct experiments to learn how processes behave and to discover new chemical products and processes. A bachelor's degree is essential for all of these jobs, and a master's degree may be preferred or required for some.

Engineering and science technicians assist chemists and engineers in research activities and may conduct some research independently. Those with bachelor's degrees in chemistry or graduates of 2-year technical institutes usually fill these positions. Some graduates of engineering programs start as technicians until an opportunity to advance into an engineering position arises.

Management, business, and financial occupations. As in other highly technical industries, top managerial positions often are held by those with substantial technical experience.

Engineering managers conduct cost estimations, perform plant design feasibility studies, and coordinate daily operations. These jobs require a college degree in a technical discipline, such as chemistry or chemical engineering, as well as experience in the industry. Some employees advance from research and development positions to management positions.

Marketing and sales managers promote sales of chemical products by informing customers of company products and services. A bachelor's degree in marketing, chemistry, or chemical engineering usually is required for these jobs.

Office and administrative support occupations. Office and administrative support workers perform office functions such as secretarial duties, bookkeeping, and material records processing, among others. Training beyond high school and familiarity with computers is preferred for these occupations.

Table 2. Employment of wage and salary workers in chemical manufacturing, except drugs, 2008 and projected change, 2008-2018. (Employment in thousands)
Occupation Employment, 2008 Percent Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
All occupations 560.0 100.0 -13.3
Management, business, and financial occupations 53.2 9.5 -15.0
  Management occupations 35.1 6.3 -17.9
  Business and financial operations occupations 18.1 3.2 -9.3
Professional and related occupations 68.8 12.3 -15.6
  Computer specialists 6.2 1.1 -15.2
  Chemical engineers 7.8 1.4 -21.0
  Industrial engineers 5.5 1.0 -3.0
  Chemists 12.7 2.3 -16.1
  Chemical technicians 16.3 2.9 -18.4
Sales and related occupations 19.8 3.5 -12.3
  Sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing 16.9 3.0 -12.5
Office and administrative support occupations 62.0 11.1 -16.0
  Bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks 6.5 1.2 -13.1
  Customer service representatives 7.4 1.3 -4.4
  Production, planning, and expediting clerks 6.2 1.1 -14.5
  Shipping, receiving, and traffic clerks 10.9 2.0 -21.0
  Secretaries and administrative assistants 9.9 1.8 -17.7
  Office clerks, general 5.9 1.1 -14.2
Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations 46.1 8.2 -11.5
  Industrial machinery mechanics 15.5 2.8 -3.4
  Maintenance and repair workers, general 15.9 2.8 -14.1
Production occupations 252.2 45.0 -10.6
  First-line supervisors/managers of production and operating workers 24.0 4.3 -16.1
  Team assemblers 14.5 2.6 -9.0
  Chemical plant and system operators 36.9 6.6 -22.8
  Mixing and blending machine setters, operators, and tenders 46.6 8.3 11.7
  Extruding, forming, pressing, and compacting machine setters, operators, and tenders 8.0 1.4 12.2
  Inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers 11.7 2.1 -15.4
  Packaging and filling machine operators and tenders 27.1 4.9 -11.4
  Miscellaneous production workers 16.4 2.9 -14.6
Transportation and material moving occupations 48.0 8.6 -18.9
  Driver/sales workers and truck drivers 9.6 1.7 -21.5
  Laborers and material movers, hand 22.8 4.1 -21.0
  Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand 10.3 1.8 -21.6
  Packers and packagers, hand 9.4 1.7 -18.3
NOTE: Columns may not add to total due to omission of occupations with small employment.

Training and Advancement[About this section] [To Top]

The chemical industry offers career opportunities for persons with varying levels of experience and education. Training and advancement differ for the three major categories of occupations.

Production occupations. Production workers tend to train be trained on-the-job, or in junior or community colleges. Entry-level production workers may start as laborers or in other lesser skilled jobs and, with experience and training, advance into better paying positions that require greater skills or have greater responsibility. Substantial advancement is possible even within a single occupation. For example, machine operatorsand tenders may move up through several levels of responsibility until they reach the highest paying operator job. Advancement in production occupations usually requires mastery of advanced skills, generally acquired by a combination of on-the-job training and formal training provided by the employer. Some workers advance into supervisory positions.

Professional and related occupations. Most jobs in research and development require substantial technical education resulting in at least a bachelor’s degree and up to a doctoral degree. Few opportunities may exist, however, for persons with a 2-year associate degree as lab technicians or assistants. Developing a new product or being awarded a patent brings an increase in pay and prestige but, after a point, advancement may require moving from research and development into management. Researchers usually are familiar with company objectives and production methods, which, combined with college education, equips them with many of the tools necessary for management positions.

Management, business, and financial occupations. Managerial jobs usually require a 4-year college degree, though some may require only a 2-year technical degree. Managers can advance into higher level jobs without additional formal training outside the workplace, although competition is keen. In general, advancement into the highest management ranks depends on one's experience and proven ability to handle responsibility in several functional areas. Among larger, multinational firms, international experience is important for career advancement. Also, industry restructuring has left fewer layers of management, intensifying competition for promotions.

Office and administrative support occupations. Office and administrative support workers often train on-the-job or have taken some postsecondary courses. Opportunities are typically limited for office and administrative support workers but with time and experience may become the supervisor of other office support workers.

Outlook[About this section] [To Top]

Employment is projected to decline rapidly, and applicants for jobs are expected to face keen competition.

Employment change. Although output is expected to grow, wage and salary employment in the chemical manufacturing industry, excluding pharmaceuticals, is projected to decline by 13 percent over the 2008-18 period, compared to 11 percent growth projected for all industries combined. The expected decline in employment can be attributed to trends affecting the U.S. and global economies. A number of factors will influence chemical industry employment, including technological advances that have enabled plant automation and more efficient chemical processes that have affected the production process, the state of the national and world economy, company mergers and consolidation, increased foreign competition, the shifting of production activities to foreign countries, and environmental health and safety concerns and legislation. Another trend in the chemical industry is the rising demand for specialty chemicals. Chemical companies are finding that, in order to remain competitive, they must differentiate their products and produce specialty chemicals, such as advanced polymers and plastics designed for customer-specific uses—for example, a durable body panel on an automobile.

Improvements in production technology have reduced the need for workers in production; installation, maintenance, and repair; which account for large proportions of jobs in the chemical industry. Sophisticated machines with computerized controls have replaced some workers in standard production. With automation manufacturers can increase accuracy and decrease time and labor costs, thus contributing to increased production efficiency. Although production facilities will be easier to run with the increased use of computerized controls, the new production methods will require workers with a better understanding of the systems.

It is important for firms to improve their bottom line. Pressure to reduce costs and streamline production will result in mergers and consolidations of companies both within the United States and abroad. Mergers and consolidations are allowing chemical companies to increase profits by eliminating duplicate tasks and departments and shifting operations to locations in which costs are lowest. U.S. companies are expected to move some production activities to developing countries—in East Asia and Latin America, for example—to take advantage of rapidly expanding markets.

The volatility of inputs like crude oil and natural gas prices impact the chemical manufacturing industry. Likewise, prices of chemical feedstocks—like ethane or propane, which are used to produce petrochemicals, plastics, fertilizers, and other products— can be unstable. In response, prices for chemical products must fluctuate and so does demand for chemical products. If prices of such inputs are continually high, demand will be low for chemical products and manufacturer will need to employ fewer workers; the opposite would occur if inputs are continually low priced.

Increasing interest in going "green" throughout the U.S. may affect the chemical manufacturing industry. For example, there are efforts to reduce the amount of emissions the U.S. produces. As manufacturers have limits imposed on their emissions, the cost of producing chemical products will rise, likely reducing demand. Also, many localities are considering restrictions on the use of plastic shopping bags, a product of the chemical manufacturing industry.

The factors influencing employment in the chemical manufacturing industry will affect different segments of the industry to varying degrees. Only one segment—paint, coating, and adhesive products segment—is projected to grow. The remaining segments are projected to lose jobs.

Job prospects. Individuals seeking employment in the chemical manufacturing industry are expected to face keen competition, particularly those seeking to enter the industry for the first time. For production jobs, opportunities will be best for those with experience and continuing education. For professional and managerial jobs, applicants with experience and an advanced degree should have the best prospects. In addition, some job opportunities will arise from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or who retire or leave the labor force for other reasons.

Earnings [About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

Industry earnings. Earnings in the chemical industry are higher than average. Weekly earnings for all production workers in chemical manufacturing averaged $809 in 2008, compared with $724 for workers in all manufacturing industries. The higher wages were due, in part, to the chemical industry's practice of assigning more overtime and weekend work, which commands higher hourly rates.

Wages of workers in the chemical industry vary according to occupation, the specific industry segment, and the size of the production plant. Median hourly wages of the largest occupations in chemical manufacturing are shown in table 3.

Table 3. Median hourly wages of the largest occupations in chemical manufacturing, May 2008
Occupation Chemical manufacturing All industries
Chemists $31.68 $31.84
First-line supervisors/managers of production and operating workers 28.33 24.25
Chemical plant and system operators 25.41 25.23
Industrial machinery mechanics 22.83 20.99
Chemical technicians 22.03 20.25
Chemical equipment operators and tenders 21.92 21.76
Maintenance and repair workers, general 21.28 16.21
Inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers 16.41 15.02
Mixing and blending machine setters, operators, and tenders 15.59 15.04
Packaging and filling machine operators and tenders 12.95 11.73

Benefits and union membership. In 2008, about 6 percent of manufacturing workers were union members.



*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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