A chemical engineer designs and develops the processes that make a diverse range of products. Their work focuses on changing the chemical, biochemical and physical state of a substance to turn it into something else, for example making plastic from oil.

They understand how to alter raw materials into required products while taking into consideration health and safety and cost issues.

They work in a variety of industries including:

  • oil and gas;
  • pharmaceuticals;
  • energy;
  • water treatment;
  • food and drink;
  • plastics;
  • toiletries.

Modern chemical engineering is also concerned with pioneering valuable new materials and techniques, such as nanotechnology, fuel cells and biomedical engineering.

Responsibilities

Day-to-day responsibilities are extremely diverse and depend on the role and the sector in which you work. In general, tasks may include:

  • working closely with process chemists and control engineers to ensure the process plant is set up to provide maximum output levels and efficient running of the production facility;
  • designing plant and equipment configuration so that they can be readily adapted to suit the product range and the process technologies involved, taking environmental and economic aspects into account;
  • setting up scale-up and scale-down processes including appropriate changes to equipment design and configuration;
  • assessing options for plant expansion or reconfiguration by developing and testing process simulation models;
  • designing, installing and commissioning new production plants, including monitoring developments and troubleshooting;
  • optimising production by analysing processes and compiling de-bottleneck studies;
  • applying new technologies;
  • researching new products from trial through to commercialisation and improving product lines;
  • ensuring that potential safety issues related to the project operator, the environment, the process and the product are considered at all stages.

Examples of work activities in specific sectors include:

  • undertaking small and intermediate-scale manufacturing and packaging activities in pharmaceutical product development for clinical trial purposes;
  • developing new methods of safe nuclear energy production, including projects such as conceptual design, simulation and construction of test rigs, and detailed design and operations support.

Salary

  • According to a recent salary survey by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), graduate starting salaries are in the region of £29,500.
  • Prospects for higher earnings in the profession are good and median salaries for chartered chemical engineers reach around £70,000. Work in certain industries, for example oil and contracting, may attract salaries higher than this.

Salaries vary according to location, sector, size and the nature of the industry and are dependent on chartered status.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 9am to 5pm, possibly with some extra hours. Jobs in processing and manufacturing may involve shift work, including evenings and weekends.

What to expect

  • Work may take place in a lab, office or processing plant. Development work may progress from lab to plant or construction site, so travel may be required at certain stages of a project and clothing requirements, for example the need for safety clothing, may change.
  • Safety is a high priority in chemical and nuclear-based industries and hygiene is critical in food and drink production and water treatment.
  • Jobs are quite widely available and process plants are located in industrial areas throughout the UK (particularly Scotland, the Midlands, North West and North East England) and overseas.
  • Travel and overseas obligations depend on the sector and profile of the employing company. With many UK-based chemical companies, travel and overseas postings are only occasionally necessary, while overseas projects may be the norm if you work for a global manufacturer or consultancy.

Qualifications

Chemical engineering degrees accredited by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) are available and obtaining one of these is the most straightforward route to becoming a chartered chemical engineer.

To become chartered, you will need to have studied to Masters level, either completing a four-year MEng in chemical engineering or a BEng followed by the relevant Masters.

Having an accredited degree means you automatically meet the IChemE requirements for becoming chartered. Information on accredited courses is available from whynotchemeng.

If your degree is not accredited, you will need to supply supporting evidence of the level of knowledge you have achieved. A useful tool for checking your eligibility for becoming chartered is available at Get Chartered.

The following degree subjects may be considered useful:

  • applied chemistry;
  • biochemical/process engineering;
  • biomedical engineering;
  • chemistry;
  • environmental engineering;
  • nuclear engineering;
  • polymer science/technology.

Advanced taught Masters courses, focusing on other relevant aspects of chemical engineering, are also available. For example, if you have studied chemistry at degree level, you could consider taking an MSc in process engineering.

An HND or foundation degree in the physical or applied sciences may be accepted by some employers, although you may work at a lower level to begin with. You will also need to complete further qualifications if you wish to become chartered.

A number of employers and professional organisations offer financial sponsorship for students studying chemical engineering at university. Companies typically advertise their sponsorship schemes and information can usually be found on company websites.

Details of major chemical engineering employers, which can also be useful for asking for work experience, can be found at whynotchemeng - employers.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • an understanding of engineering principles and mathematics;
  • an aptitude for and interest in chemistry;
  • project management skills;
  • resource management skills;
  • oral and written communication skills;
  • analytical and problem-solving ability;
  • the ability to work as part of a team;
  • the capacity to motivate and lead a team;
  • strong IT skills;
  • a careful and methodical approach with good attention to detail;
  • commercial and business awareness;
  • creativity and innovation.

Work experience

Employers look for graduates with appropriate work experience and may favour recruiting candidates from their own placement schemes. These are generally vacation placements, typically lasting six to twelve weeks, or extended placements, which vary in length from six months to a year and can offer the opportunity to work on a more extensive project in industry.

Many university departments offer assistance in securing an industrial placement.

Employers

Any company involved in large-scale conversion of raw materials into a product needs chemical engineers.

Employers are as diverse as the products they produce and cover a broad range of industrial sectors, including:

  • biotechnology;
  • business, management and consultancy;
  • chemical and allied products;
  • energy;
  • food and drink;
  • materials;
  • oil and gas;
  • pharmaceuticals;
  • process plants and equipment;
  • water.

In the engineering sector more generally, there are companies that design and manufacture chemical process plant and equipment.

Many chemical engineers also work within engineering consultancy and contracting firms. They are likely to be taken on either to design and commission a new plant or to modify an existing plant.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies also advertise vacancies, such as:

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) is the professional body representing chemical, biochemical and process engineers and runs a variety of training events. These include:

  • conferences;
  • short courses;
  • digital training resources;
  • e-learning modules and courses.

More information is available from IChemE Training.

Many companies offer internal-training schemes for graduates to make sure they get the broad spectrum of experience needed to develop a career as a professional engineer. IChemE benchmarks many of these schemes, known as Accredited Company Training Schemes (ACTS).

This means that the scheme, if followed correctly, should ensure each graduate becomes a well-rounded and competent professional engineer. Relevant details are available at IChemE ACTS Companies.

An ACTS will also go towards fulfilling the application requirements for becoming a chartered chemical engineer and member of IChemE (CEng MIChemE).

Some employers provide structured, job-based training programmes that cover the requirements for CEng status. As you are working towards chartership, you can usually expect your employer to provide a mentor and to supplement your regular development training with relevant technical training for specific projects.

You will need to provide evidence that you have the relevant professional experience for getting chartered status and have completed enough continuing professional development (CPD).

IChemE have a CPD tool to help with recording relevant activities. For full details on how to achieve chartership, visit Get Chartered.

Career prospects

Career development is usually dependent on achieving chartered status (CEng). The dynamic nature of the industry means you can expect to be offered significant continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities in order to develop new knowledge.

The nature of the work provides you with a variety of skills and enables you to handle a range of technical, environmental and commercial challenges.

This allows for promotion to senior management often more quickly than is possible in other sectors.

Initially you will gain experience of a variety of projects, either within the same company or, after gaining chartership, by changing companies. After training in the early years, there are various possible career routes to:

  • continue working on projects in order to become a project manager;
  • develop expertise in a new technique or process in demand within the industry and move into research and development;
  • move into specialist roles, such as safety and risk management or environmental management;
  • move into commercial areas, such as technical sales, marketing, supply chain management, personnel, finance and IT.

Many of the larger manufacturers and consultancies offer roles that involcve travel or that are located overseas.

Associated career options include biochemical engineer and brewing engineer.