Christel, chemical engineer, talks to you about his job

What does your job as a chemical engineer consist of?

You can be a researcher or production engineer in chemical plants, or you can do engineering, to create new plants, to study the environment for example.

If you had to describe the main tasks during a typical week or day?

In research, there will be a “bench work” part, i. e. in the laboratory, which consists of reactions and manipulations, then an “analysis of the results obtained” part, i. e. I observe the results and reflect on what has worked or not and above all why. Finally I determine if I can improve the system.

On a typical day, I arrive at the lab and check what I left running at night to see how it has evolved, and eventually I launch new reactions or new tests. When it works, you have to write, because yes, we write a lot in this business, they are mainly publications or reports for clients to keep them informed of the results obtained.

In terms of schedules, being more of a service provider for the various companies, I work from 8am to 6pm, so you shouldn’t expect to do 8 hours a day.

An example of projects/anecdotes?

I have worked on studies of powder coating, literally powder coating, and I was developing a catalyst to make the application and setting process faster on these paints, and I have had projects for biologically active molecules in the pharmaceutical field. I had to manufacture the molecule and then various tests were carried out on it, I also worked on separations of radioelements, radioisotopes, I also studied paint strippers for car bumpers, in short, we can have extremely varied projects.


Do you work alone or in a team?

On the subjects I dealt with as a service provider, I worked alone, even though I occasionally exchanged with the laboratory director. But I also had a fundamental research topic that I was working on in parallel. I had two or three students with me and we worked as a team, we discussed and tested and we organized the debriefings. So it’s more of a team effort most of the time.

How long did your missions last?

It depended on their size, ranging from 3 months of mission for the shortest to a little over a year for the longest.

Did you often and easily find missions?

I did this for over 7 years and I was on non-stop with one to three missions in parallel.

What has been your career path in the field of chemical engineering?

I took a Bac C, the equivalent today of a Bac S SVT with a maths option, then I took a DUT in chemistry because I didn’t yet know if I wanted to study for a long time or not. I then entered a chemical engineering school in Lyon, now the CPE Lyon. In my last year, I graduated with a double degree with a master’s degree in research at the university, which allowed me to start a doctorate at the same time.

What qualities do you need to be able to work as a chemical engineer?

Rigour and a lot of intellectual curiosity, especially in research and you have to like the practical side of chemistry. There is certainly a large intellectual part but also a concrete realization side with the manipulations.

Do you use English?

All the time, there is almost no publication in French, even the books for study are in English, I have been in English all through my schooling but I have never necessarily excelled, I am not bilingual. What is important is to get out of the French language study system where “if I don’t have the perfect sentence, I don’t say anything”. We have to talk, too bad if we make mistakes, we will always be able to make ourselves understood, Anglophones are finally quite understanding, we have to get past the point of being afraid of making mistakes. As you read, you become more fluent and the vocabulary is created on your own.

Why are you a teacher today?

During my doctorate I was able to do some teaching to finance my research and I realized that I liked the contact with young people, passing on knowledge and techniques.

What makes you like your job?

It’s science and it’s always different, in research we always have surprises. There are always new products that you want to try and there are interesting applications.

Have you always wanted to do this job?

In fact, after my baccalaureate I proceeded by elimination, after removing all the materials I didn’t like, all I had left was biology and chemistry.

If you had to change something in your job?

No, nothing is a job I like as it is.

What advice would you give to young people who want to become chemical engineers?

You have to start with things you like, and not focus on a specific position because you may be surprised. I studied chemistry in order to be an organic chemist, that is, everything related to organic chemistry, in order to get closer to the pharmaceutical field. Finally, I ended up with research projects that were what we call process engineering. That is, calculating facilities, that kind of thing. There was a very calculating side, whereas math was really not my cup of tea in senior year. And all in all, when you start with a good subject, it’s easy, if you take ownership of the subject and want to take up the challenge you can do it.

Concerning the course, it is necessary to follow the scientific course and not to neglect maths and physics. If you don’t yet know if you want to study long or short, it is better to specialize early. Otherwise the royal way remains the preparatory class and then the engineering school.

The chemical sector posted record growth in 2017

According to the annual review of chemical companies, published by the UIC (Union des Industries Chimiques), 2017 is a memorable year marked by production volumes that increased by 4.6%. The chemical industry thus remains a major player in the French economy, ranking second in Europe after Germany and seventh among producing countries in the world.

The entire chemical industry on the rise

The chemicals sector had an exceptional year, with growth of nearly 5%. This is a remarkable figure according to Pascal Juéry, the president of the Union des industries chimiques (UIC), who points out that these results have not been observed “for more than fifteen years”.

The French chemical sector as a whole recorded an increase in results, with a rare event, a stronger increase than that observed in Germany (+2.6% in 2017). However, two sectors benefit more from this favourable context: organic chemicals (+7.5%) and soaps, perfumes and cleaning products (+8.2%), which achieved the strongest growth.

Chemicals, the leading industrial exporter ahead of aeronautics

The sector is the leading industrial exporter with export sales of 58.7 billion euros in 2017, an increase in exports of 8.5% compared to 2016. This level was achieved in particular thanks to the good domestic and international economic situation observed in the last quarter of 2017, which was marked by a 1.2% increase in foreign trade in chemicals compared to the previous quarter (after -4.2%).

Thanks to its exports, the chemical sector is taking a growing place in the country’s trade balance, with a cumulative positive trade balance of €8.6 billion in 2017 (compared with €7.5 billion in 2016). The sector thus represents the second largest industrial balance in France. In addition, while chemical prices have declined in recent years, a significant 3% increase in sales prices was recorded in 2017.

Forecasts for 2018

Despite the crisis that is hurting the rest of the secondary sector and while France’s trade deficit is still declining in 2017, chemicals are reversing the trend for manufacturing industry as a whole, with average growth since 2000 at +0.8% per year. According to UIC, 2018 is supported by an economic environment considered favourable and therefore looks promising with growth forecasts “around 3%”. However, the sector will probably not repeat this year’s achievement. Indeed, the position of France and Europe is difficult to maintain because the sector is facing competition from Asian and Middle Eastern countries, which benefit from significant markets or more competitive energy costs.