The cover of the January 21 issue of Maclean’s, which promised to explain “why so many smart, educated, ambitious young people have no future” was enough to make any university student consider throwing in the towel on both their education and their career plans. The story goes that for the past several decades, society has embraced the idea that a university degree was the golden ticket to a good job and a comfortable existence, but that today’s reality doesn’t deliver. Graduates are deep in debt with minimal job prospects, particularly for those with degrees in arts and social sciences. Many are still living at home in their late 20s and into their 30s, and if they’re employed it’s at parttime, low-paying retail and service jobs.
It’s a grim portrait for tomorrow’s leaders, to be sure, but there are some exceptions. The article cites scientists and engineers as a group that is much more in demand and who can expect higher starting salaries. Hardly a surprise: have you ever seen a report that says Canada has too many scientists and engineers?
From my view, industrial career opportunities in chemistry and chemicalengineering have scarcely been this good since the early 70s. It’s true that pharmaceuticalresearch has taken a dip; Merck Frosst, Astra Zeneca, Eli Lilly and Boehringer-Ingelheim have all shut down their Canadian research facilities. But there is growth in many areas, even outside of the oil sands. Canadian Business ran an article last April entitled“Where the Jobs Are” which examined 600 occupations tracked by Statistics Canada; chemists and chemical engineers were ranked number five in terms of job growth. According to the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) in a January 14, 2013 Globe & Mail article, the forestry sector has been completely rejuvenated and is forecasting 60,000 new jobs over the next seven years, with positions for “more specialized, highly skilled people in such sectors as chemical engineering” as well as “innovators, technologists and chemists” among them.
But when it comes to the next generation of academic researchers, I am hearing a very different story. Chemistry and chemical engineering department heads and professors say we produce many excellent young researchers but university career opportunities in Canada are fewer and farther between than they once were. By some rough estimates, about 500 new university chemistry hires out of an approximate workforce of 1,500 in total were made between 2000 and 2010: a significant number of new, young researchers. But in the last two or three years university hiring has slowed down, partly because of fewer research grant dollars. More and more post-docs are going to the U.S., Australia, China, Korea and other countries. We are losing some of our top young researchers; the very ones that Canadian universities will need to help maintain and build even higher research and educational standards. At the same time, in a globally competitive community, Canadian industry needs the highly qualified personnel that our universities provide.
There are, more than ever, no easy answers for aspiring university researchers in Canada. But I say, if it’s a career in Canadian academia you want, stay the course and pursue your dream whether temporarily in the international community or even outside of academia. A few years’ experience in industry or government is little time in an overall career and can give you an invaluable edge for when you step back into the academic career that you really want.