At the ACS meeting in Boston, I was honored to be asked to speak at a symposium commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Henry A. Hill. In 1977, Dr. Hill was the first African-American ACS President. He was elected to that office after a long career in ACS as an activist for professionalism within the chemistry industry.
During his time in ACS Governance, The Chemical Professional’s Code of Conduct and the Guidelines for Employers were created. The Guidelines specified ACS-approved ways for a company to treat its chemical professionals, including at the time they might be laid off. It was a controversial document to be sure. Perhaps the Code of Conduct was a bit less controversial because it included “rules of the road” for both professionals and the companies they worked for.
To prepare for the talk, I read articles from C&EN from the early- and mid-1970s, and I was struck by how much has changed in the world and yet how similar the issues were for ACS then and now. In his 1975 election statement, he wrote:
Chemists' salaries have not been keeping up with inflation. Part of the reason for this is that there are too few jobs in chemistry in spite of the press of problems—in energy, in the environment, in materials—that need solving. We must try to interact more effectively with Congress and the Administration to support studies which will solve these problems—not simply as a means of putting chemists to work, but as sound national policy.
Related to this is the problem of supply. Although we must not bar the door to bright, eager, young people, we must see to it that the quality of our graduates is improved and means for upgrading the excellence of the entire chemical community is achieved.
I was in grad school in 1975. I remember the period of October 1973 to mid-1975 as economically dismal, what with wage and price controls, oil embargoes, gas lines and “stagflation.” Another undercurrent for those of us in the sciences was the bursting of the Sputnik bubble.
In 1958, policy-makers were concerned that the Russians would own space, particularly for military advantage. To catch up, the US invested heavily in educating new scientists. I’ve heard many people refer to those as the golden years because there was so much interest in and money for science. But that started changing in the late 1960s, and after about 1973, we got tired of going to the moon. We cut our investment, and there was this glut of scientists. Add to that the changing nature of the chemical industry, and all of a sudden there was an employment crisis. Dr. Hill himself talked about launching a study in the late 1960s to understand “mass layoffs.”
In April, 1975, the ACS Council approved the Professional Enhancement Program. This was a direct response to the employment situation, and included such things as increased assistance to members seeking employment or reemployment, including development of ACS employment counseling and clearinghouse programs, and increased support for chemists and chemical engineers in their relations with their employers. It set out to define the causes of major layoffs and develop manpower supply and demand projections to help protect the profession from a recurrence of the present unemployment situation.
I found it interesting that this work continues today through the efforts of the Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs, the ACS Career Navigator programs, and various Presidential task forces.
When Dr. Hill was elected, C&EN wrote:
Hill has been an ACS member for 34 years. He has been particularly active on the national scene in recent years, responding to what he describes as his ‘timely exposure to the problems of the chemical professional in the 1960's when, for the first time, we had more chemists than we had jobs for them.’ (emphasis mine)
I was shocked to read those words. Our predecessors—even before the dismal economic days of the ‘70s--had many of the same concerns with respect to employment and the balance between supply and demand as some of our colleagues express today. In many ways, today’s situation is more difficult and complicated. The enterprise is profoundly global, and it was not in 1975. The business that employs so many chemists—big pharma—struggles to find its place in the context of 2015.
And even more startling: we’re graduating about twice as many bachelors and 50% more PhDs today than we were then. Yet the overall unemployment rate is relatively low, even if it’s higher for new graduates.
So here’s a hypothesis: maybe then and now are not so different. Maybe for some reason we virtually always have too many chemists and too few jobs…or if not always, maybe most of the time.
So if that hypothesis is plausible, what do we do about the situation, individually and collectively? If chemists are in oversupply, our first thought is to encourage industry to hire more of us. But realistically, that only works for them if they can make more money by doing so. That’s harsh, but it’s the nature of the enterprise.
I believe that each of us is a single-proprietor business—even if we work at a corporation or a university. If we take that point of view and constantly work to improve our capabilities we have a greater chance of avoiding the tragedy of an atrophied career and a layoff because the enterprise changed and we didn’t realize it was happening.
Employers have a responsibility to us as employees, but our responsibility to ourselves is an order of magnitude greater. That’s what it means to me to be a professional: to make a career a continuous series of learning experiences; adding to our toolkits; making ourselves better and more valuable in a competitive market. ACS’ responsibility in exchange for your dues is to do what it can to enable you. I think Dr. Hill might agree.
Dr. William F. Carroll, Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. He received an M.S. from Tulane University in New Orleans, and a B.A. in chemistry and physics from DePauw University in Greencastle, IN. He holds two patents, and has over sixty-five publications in the fields of organic electrochemistry, polymer chemistry, combustion chemistry, incineration and plastics recycling.