Preventing your job skills from deteriorating or becoming out of date is an important issue when you are unemployed, particularly if you have been unemployed for a year or more. Job hunts are taking longer nowadays. Overall, the number of long-term unemployed is at its highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Newly laid-off chemists face a job market in which long-term unemployment has become the rule rather than the exception” according to the July 5, 2010 issue of C&EN (http://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/88/8827cover2.html ). Over 40% of the unemployed have been out of work for than six months or longer, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is more than 6 million Americans. The number and percentage of people who have been unemployed for more than six months has risen sharply since 2008. Corresponding numbers for chemists have not been reported. However, anecdotal information suggests that the number of chemists unemployed for six months or more has increased.
Besides the adverse financial effects of long-term unemployment, unemployed chemists face another challenge: the danger of their job skills and chemical knowledge becoming out of date.
“The wasted human capital is just tremendous,” says Jacob Kirkegaard, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “Once people become unemployed for long periods of time, you start seeing a serious depreciation or reduction in their skill levels — in the human capital that they carry… They essentially lose contact with the latest developments in their own field.” For example, unemployed chemists may not have convenient access to research and trade journals now that their former employers’ libraries are unavailable. Given the cost of journal subscriptions, few unemployed chemists are likely to make this investment.
So what steps can you take to keep your professional skills up to date and even expand them?
Check the ACS website
The ACS offers benefits to unemployed members that include waived dues for up to two full years. Benefits specifically related to helping unemployed members keep their professional skills up to date include registration discounts for online business skills courses, ACS ProSpectives, ACS short courses, webcasts, and the ACS Leadership Development System. Information on these programs is available in the Careers section of the ACS website.
National and regional ACS meetings can be an important way to keep your chemistry knowledge from becoming out of date. ACS members receive reduced meeting registration fees. There are also other ways to reduce the cost of attending ACS meetings including using frequent flyer miles to eliminate airfare expenses and reducing hotel room costs by sharing a room with a friend.
Many current job openings are for temporary positions. For example, in December 2008 the U.S. economy lost 85,000 jobs overall according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, at the same time the number of people employed in temporary positions increased by 47,000 people.
By registering with a temporary employment agency such as Kelly Scientific Services, Aerotek, Olsten Staffing Services and other firms, you may be able to find a temporary position that will both provide some income when your unemployment benefits are exhausted and offer a means of utilizing your chemical skills and knowledge. These jobs can help you keep your chemistry skills up to date.
However, you don’t want to become complacent while working in a temporary position even if the job is interesting and your coworkers congenial. While employed in a temporary job, you should continue your job hunt for a long-term position. Also, let the company contracting your services know that you are interested in a long-term position with them. Some firms use temporary positions as a means of screening people for long-term employment.
If you live in a large city, you can access research journals and trade magazines through your local library. Libraries in lower population areas may also maintain some of these subscriptions. You may be able to access the libraries of local colleges and universities, particularly if you are an alumnus.
ACS local sections often bring in speakers to present talks on technical subjects. You may want to ask your local section program chair to not limit these talks to chemistry. For example, a local project manager may be interested in discussing the basics of her field. A patent attorney may be willing to present an overview of his field or describe how recent changes in the patent system affect both researchers and their employers.
Consider forming a job-hunting club through your ACS local section. See the ACS tip sheet to start a job club. Participants in the club can present talks in their technical fields. This can enable club members to be exposed to technology outside their own specialty area. It can also enable them to practice interviewing skills.
John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.