Chemical companies face a shortage of experienced workers and must replace a substantial number of retiring baby boomers in the coming years. More than 20% of the chemicals workforce is approaching retirement in the next three to five years, said 40% of respondents.
If the aging workforce issue is not resolved in the next three to five years, 86% said the chemical industry's profitability will suffer significantly. This includes 49% of chemical companies that agree and 37% that strongly agree with this point of view at a time when industry expansion is expected to continue in North America.
Furthermore, only approximately one quarter of North American chemicals companies retained 90% or more of their millennial employees hired in the past three years. Most saw a 30-50% attrition rate among millennials. This compares with a recent Accenture Strategy study showing that new university graduates expect to stay on the job for more than three years.
"Abundant supplies of domestic natural gas from shale have moved the US from being a high-cost producer of key petrochemicals and resins to among the lowest cost producers globally, creating a period of unprecedented growth," said ACC President and CEO Cal Dooley. "We currently have more than 262 new chemical projects announced that are valued at over $161 billion. For the first time in more than a decade, the US chemical industry is once again creating good, high-paying American jobs and it's vital that we be able to attract and retain a talented workforce that helps us continue to drive economic expansion, innovation and global competitiveness," he added.
Executives interviewed noted that chemical companies have effective knowledge transfer programs and can hire millennials with non-technical degrees and train them in the technical knowledge to do the job. The challenge for some is keeping millennials for long, productive careers in an industry considered "old," despite its track record of tremendous innovation.
"Companies in all industries have a range of generations in their workforce," said Julie Sweet, Accenture's group chief executive – North America. "We find that across generations, employees all want interesting work, an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution and a balanced life. By focusing on transparency, providing a hyper-personalized employee experience centered around these values, and providing a feedback loop to keep close to their people, companies can attract and inspire the best people across the generations."
Most chemical firms compete with peers for personnel, filling open positions mainly by hiring from other companies in the industry. This makes for a limited talent pool and fierce competition. More than half (52%) of chemical companies reported hiring professional talent from competitors. This compares with US Bureau of Labor Statistics data (from May 2015) showing that two-thirds of chemistry, chemical engineer and material science graduates, fields desired by chemical companies, work in in other industries, including government agencies and energy firms.
Exacerbating the workforce challenges is the so-called "missing middle" of workers ages 35 to 54. This is also a tight labor pool from which to recruit and replace retiring workers with valuable expertise.
"Now that innovation in the US energy sector has created a surge in demand for chemical professionals, particularly skilled craft and technical workers, the industry needs to work collaboratively to close the growing gap," said Peter Cella, incoming ACC chairman of the board and president and CEO of Chevron Phillips Chemical Company. "Awareness is a critical first step, but we also need to work closely with our schools, communities and government leaders to ensure resources are in place to prepare tomorrow's workforce."
"When you sum it all up, we are fighting the war for talent on many fronts," said Inga Carus, ACC board member and chair of Carus Corporation. "We must not only hire the right people as older workers retire and transfer their knowledge to a younger work force, we must bridge the gap with millennials and get them excited about what we do with chemistry as we develop new products to meet the needs of their generation."
Another challenge is that new technologies are changing the face of the chemical industry workforce. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of respondents said that half or more of the workforce is changing compared to three years ago due to the advent of new skills, automation, robots and cognitive agents. Most (78%) expect further change due to digital technologies automating jobs, causing moderate (56%) to significant (22%) workforce reductions, though more skilled support jobs will be needed.
"While all of these workforce issues exist, 60 percent of chemical companies said they are adapting to digital technologies, but with some resistance," said David Yankovitz, managing director and chemical practice lead for Accenture. "They also recognize a greater need to embrace digital technologies to gain a competitive advantage. So as the industry overcomes this resistance and advances a people-first mindset to bolster the workforce, success will come in many areas from the production plant to the back office to the market with new products and services."