The heavy chemical industry converts raw materials, such as oil, metals, and minerals, into more than 70,000 secondary products that are sold for use in other industries. These products include basic chemicals (such as chlorine, sodium carbonate, and sulfuric acid), complex specialty chemicals (such as plastics, pigments, and additives), and consumer chemicals (such as soaps, detergents, and cosmetics).
The Australian chemical industry is critical to Australia’s overall economic health. It supplies 109 of Australia’s 111 industries, and about 80% of its output goes directly into other sectors, such as mining, advanced manufacturing, and food and agriculture. Encompassing 5,500 businesses nationally, the chemical industry includes some 60,000 people who contribute $11.6 billion to Australia’s gross domestic product.
Importantly, the chemical industry is a leading employer of Australian STEM graduates. Around 75 per cent of the world’s fastest-growing jobs rely on skills from STEM disciplines, and many of those jobs are found in the chemical industry. They include graduate careers in chemical engineering, product development research, quality assurance, hazardous waste management, process chemistry (the ‘scaling up’ of chemical reactions to create bulk amounts), and formulation chemistry (the selection of ingredients, such as flavours, binders, and colourants, for a final product).
It’s difficult to describe any job duty as ‘typical’ when considering the range of occupations within the chemical industry. However, you may find yourself conducting studies on the long-term stability of products, managing clinical studies and pilot trials, monitoring reactions, developing sustainable consumer goods, or investigating accidents to determine their cause.
According to the Department of Industry, Innovation, and Science, the largest specialities in this industry, in order of decreasing size, are: polymer product manufacturing, cleaning compound manufacturing, basic chemical manufacturing, fertiliser manufacturing, and natural rubber manufacturing. The states that employ the most people in this industry, again in decreasing order, are Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and Tasmania.
Several major employers in this sector have dedicated graduate entry schemes. These organisations include Orica, Incitec Pivot, and DuluxGroup.
Needless to say, you will need a strong background in chemistry, chemical engineering, or a related field like biochemistry or genetics. A bachelor’s degree will prepare you to be a researcher, a bench scientist, or a member of a product development team. To pursue more complex roles, such as supervising others and working on novel technical problems, you will likely require a master’s degree or PhD.
Jobs in the chemical industry are well paid and relatively stable. They are also highly valued outside of the chemical industry – a CSIRO study concluded that every job in the chemical industry created five jobs ‘in related supply chains’. Overall, the industry looks set to grow substantially. To quote a 2015 Department of Industry Innovation and Science report, ‘over the next several decades, the world will also see a number of social, economic, and environmental changes that could impact the industry. New environmental regulations and social pressures could present great opportunities for the chemicals and plastics industry to supply new, innovative environmentally-friendly, socially-conscious products to downstream industries.’
It’s quite difficult to gain graduate employment in the chemical industry without some sort of STEM background. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in this sector, it’s a good idea to load up on chemistry subjects and also consider studying areas that might be of interest to the industry in the future (such as sustainability and environmental science).
For more tips on STEM careers, check out our career advice for graduates.