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Remarks by Section Chair, Dr. Herbert W. Cooper, on Globalization and a Changing World

From The Chair’s Chair
February 1st, 2012

It's Always Been a New World
One of my favorite lines comes from the Broadway show Fiddler on the Roof when Tevya says to his wife “It’s a new world, Goldie!” Well, it’s always been a new world and we chemical engineers are very often part of a team that helps make it newer, and most often better. Chemists, biologists physicists and others are terrific at inventing new things, but today’s social, economic and legal realities are that “inventing” is not enough. The safety of the potential product must be established, concepts usually must be moved from laboratories to pilot plants where information such as kinetic, equilibrium and corrosion data can be obtained in adequate quantity and quality to design a full-scale production plant. Then construction and operating permits must be obtained, the plant must be constructed, tested and operated, and its products must be sold and distributed. We ChEs have been doing these things for decades, so what’s new? What new opportunities are opening up for us? Obviously there are new technologies, new materials of construction and the like, but there are also fuzzier factors that affect us.

Globalization has been around since the early parts of recorded history. One new consideration for us is the accelerating pace and broadening extent to which it is occurring. It is now an important fact of life that strongly favors regions with certain physical resources such as the rare earth elements needed to produce modern electronic products or the low cost hydrocarbons that are needed to produce petrochemicals and transportation fuels.

It's the Best of Times; It's the Worst of Times
The upside of our profession is that it is portable; chemistry and chemical engineering fundamentals in any country are identical with those in any other one. We have the technical background to work anywhere, and globalization is expanding the number of countries, organizations and companies seeking to fill positions that may match our individual interests and unique abilities.

You may have recently read Lawrence Summers’ (former President of Harvard University and former Secretary of the Treasury) comments in January that since the international business language is English and there is rapid progress in machine translation, “…it is less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile.” Well, I don’t know what he is including in “universally” but based on my own rather substantial international experiences, I can assure you that he is dead wrong if he thinks this is helpful guidance for us! I do strongly urge students and Young Professionals to hone their abilities to speak another language and function effectively in other societies; these are in fact now more important than they have ever been.

Opportunities in Overlapping Fields
My sense of the employment and career situation is that opportunities are also increasing in adjacent overlapping fields. Unlike technology, legal matters, for example, differ greatly from one country to another. The patent situation, as one illustration, must be carefully investigated to determine whether or not a “new” invention is already covered by an existing patent or whether a new patent can be obtained. And if a patent is infringed upon in a particular country, what, if anything, can be done about it? These concerns are most effectively handled by patent attorneys with ChE backgrounds (or ChEs with patent experience) or an attorney-ChE team. While globalization certainly adds layers of increasing complexity, it also leads to the viability of becoming a patent attorney/ChE as a non-traditional career path. [Details on 3/19 meeting on Patent Law Changes.]

Another development that is new to this, and even the most recent previous, generation is the global economic slowdown. There have always been economic boom and bust cycles, but companies are now far more risk-averse than in the recent past which has led them to raise the bar for obtaining funds necessary for basic R&D, process design and project development. This has seriously negative implications for the introduction of new products, technologies and employment possibilities But it conversely increases the value of those with experience designing and operating plants. Now another career path as an information professional, skilled in locating and assessing data, has become worth considering; many colleges currently have substantial Library and Information Studies programs. Various aspects of a Competitive Intelligence career will be discussed by Dr. Martha Matteo at our February 21st dinner meeting in Manhattan. (2/12 Meeting Details)

I really do know that the employment situation is not great right now for many of you. Part of your way forward surely should include becoming active in our Metro NY Section of the AIChE. You will find that this is the most time- and cost-effective way to learn about the trends, opportunities and challenges in our chosen field, to expand your list of contacts, and to become a known entity to a group of chemical engineering professionals. We simply can not know when something we hear or someone we meet at one of our monthly meetings is exactly what or who we need at some point of our career. Make sure you are on our
email list and check our website periodically; you will benefit!

Regards to all,

Herbert W. Cooper
Chair, Metro NY Section, AIChE

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