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Pandemic changes nature of some chemical engineering jobs

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A 2021 salary and job satisfaction survey from Chemical Processing found that 40 percent of workers in a chemical engineering field worked entirely remotely after March 2020. That proportion had dropped to 20 percent to date in 2021 — but at the same time, a slightly larger slice of workers reported a hybrid arrangement, spending some days working on site and other days remotely.

The UIC chemical engineering department was interested to hear from its own alumni and industry partners about whether and how their experiences lined up with these survey trends. Clinical Associate Professor Alan Zdunek conducted an informal survey that revealed many different viewpoints across the chemical engineering field.

Some said “that a partial remote work schedule is here to stay and others took the opposite view,” Zdunek said.

Here are some sample anecdotes from UIC alumni and partners.


Aisha Torres, BS ’18:

“As far as how the work environment has changed throughout the last year, I work in consulting, specifically servicing our refining clients. I’m working from home today and do so about twice a week. I’ve have had the flexibility to go into the office or work remotely throughout the pandemic. It really depends on what I’m working on. We also still go on site for walkdowns and for some face-to-face time with the client, but meetings have almost all moved to Microsoft Teams. I’m sure students got used to Zoom, so they should know it’s probably not going away.”

Pedro Lopez, BS ’15:

“During the pandemic we were considered essential workers throughout. Our facility is attached to a manufacturing facility, so we qualified as essential. While we worked in the company, all the typical CDC guidelines were followed: masks, sanitation, and distancing. My personal impression is if you work at a plant, lab, or manufacturing environment, chances are that you were essential during the pandemic. I think this type of work will be least impacted by the new hybrid models that other companies are rolling out. Most of our consultants did stay home, and we halted travel. 2021 is a year where everyone is rethinking work and a very important piece for young students. I think most people have gotten used to telecommunication at this point, and it is now ingrained in all roles, both at home and on site.”

Gavin Towler, Advisory Board member:

“The general sense that I get from our customers and other collaborators across the energy industry is that most ChE roles will continue to be plant-based or office-based. Most engineers working in operations never even went to work from home, as it was essential for them to stay onsite to sustain operations. People in an engineering, procurement, and construction and design environment worked from home, but those companies require a great deal of collaborative work, and all the managers/leaders I have spoken with want to have their teams on-site for maximum productivity.”

Diane Graziano, Advisory Board member:

“From my personal experience working remotely this past year for a research institution, on-site work was required primarily for those operating/managing experimental or laboratory site equipment and systems. Similar “desk jobs”, such as computational process optimization, engineering and design; economic, strategic, and environmental/sustainability analysis; marketing, sales, and other business roles could be largely to partially remote – assuming that the employees have solid familiarity and understanding of the processes and products for which they are responsible; have established good working relationships with their colleagues; and can productively telecommute.”

Laurel Naser, BS ’15

“In my role as a project engineer during the pandemic, all employees who were able to work from home were encouraged to do so. We were also encouraged to limit, if not stop all together, any travel to the plants we support. As COVID restrictions were lifted, we coordinated limited occupancy within the workplace. This involved wearing masks, remote meetings, transforming small meeting rooms into offices, and maintaining six feet of distance from other coworkers. Currently, I work three days in the office and two days at home. Our group travels frequently to support roofing plants, so our in-office vs work-from-home schedule is flexible.”