Overall, slower growth is projected for chemical researchers than for the economy as a whole. Like many fields, this one offers better opportunities for more highly skilled workers.
Some of the hottest fields are applied sciences, such as nanoscience, biological chemistry, and materials chemistry. Threats to homeland security have sparked interest in the development of noninvasive technologies that can detect explosives at airports, border crossings, and events that attract crowds. Concern for sustainability has encouraged research and development directed at carbon dioxide sequestration, more efficient batteries, biofuels production, and nuclear waste storage.
Funds for basic research have been declining for some time, especially in comparison to some foreign countries. In terms of research output, however, the United States still leads the world in analytical chemistry, biological chemistry, chemistry education, inorganic chemistry, and in materials chemistry and nanoscience. The United States also has a strong presence in most other fields of chemistry, with the exception of nuclear chemistry; this partly reflects the nation's long decline in interest in nuclear power.
The number of new graduates with degrees in chemistry, chemical engineering, and applied science technology has been declining slowly since it peaked in the late 1990s. Employers have been able to fill some jobs by importing foreign workers, but this supply is expected to decline as other countries expand their chemical industries. These trends mean less competition for available jobs here but also encourage U.S. companies to invest in research facilities on foreign shores, where the workers are not only less expensive but more available.
One nice trend in chemical research and development is an increasing emphasis on workplace safety. The materials and processes used in this field present many hazards, but employers are trying to find ways to design, maintain, and operate their facilities in ways that minimize accidents and other threats to health.
The effects of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic on the field of chemistry created difficulty for employers and employees alike. Uncertain of the course and outcome of the pandemic, many business and research projects slowed or paused their work, froze hiring, and adopted a wait-and-see approach. While chemists in the life sciences, especially those related to medical diagnostics and vaccine development, remained in demand, those outside of industry, academics, experienced a very poor job market. With schools shifting to remote-learning models and non-essential business, including health care, limited by the pandemic risks, some employment avenues closed or dwindled. The COVID-19 vaccine was introduced in late 2020 and as its global distribution picks up pace in 2021, employment opportunities in the chemistry field, from research to academia, are expected to increase. According to an article in Chemical & Engineering News, "...with the deployment of vaccines and the return of in-person classes at some academic institutions, [it's predicted] that university administrations will be more willing to conduct searches, making the 2021–2022 hiring cycle stronger than the previous year."
The American Chemistry Council reported in December 2020 that chemical production in the United States is "regaining momentum" on the heels of disruptions to supplies and decreased demand and revenue due to the pandemic. Chemical production, not including pharmaceuticals, was expected to grow by nearly 4 percent in 2021 and nearly 3 percent in 2022. The ACC also predicts that basic chemicals production will grow by 5 percent in 2021 and more than 3 percent in 2022.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 4 percent growth for chemists through 2028, which is as fast as the average for all occupations. The pharmaceutical industry will need chemists to develop new treatments involving nanotechnology. Manufacturers will need chemists for research projects to develop ways to monitor and control pollution in response to tighter environmental regulations. Chemists also will be involved in finding ways to use energy more efficiently in the manufacture of chemicals. The best opportunities are expected for those with advanced degrees.
Three percent employment growth through 2028 is projected for materials scientists, slower than the average for all occupations. Offshoring of jobs by chemical manufacturers will also affect their opportunities. However, America still has a large competitive advantage in our expertise in materials science, so there will be many research projects here for researchers to develop better and cheaper high-tech materials to serve the communications, energy, and transportation industries.
Chemical engineers are projected to have average employment growth of 6 percent through 2028. Manufacturers will need skilled chemical engineers to develop products using emerging technologies. Projects related to nanotechnology and to greener and more efficient energy production will create many jobs. The medical and pharmaceutical fields will also need chemical engineers. Some opportunities for new graduates will be created as incumbents retire.
The BLS projects 2 percent job growth through 2028 for chemical technicians, which is slower than average. Although opportunities in the manufacturing sector will shrink, jobs will open in testing laboratories where technicians will be needed to test new products and materials. As more research focuses on protecting the environment and using energy and resources more sustainably, technicians will benefit from related opportunities. Job opportunities will be best for chemical technicians who have graduated from applied science technology programs and are well trained in the latest technology and lab equipment.
Graduates of applied science technology will have an advantage because they will be more capable of working with the increasingly complex instrumentation and research techniques that are being developed. For example, research and development in the field of nanotechnology involves the use of scanning tunneling electron microscopes to create images at the atomic level. Every one of these machines, and similar instruments in this fast-growing field, needs technicians to maintain and help operate it.