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Want to know what it takes to become a successful chemical engineer in the UK? See if this guide matches your expectations, from the requisite qualifications and skills to different roles and responsibilities.

What is a chemical engineer? 

Chemical engineers orchestrate the conversion of raw materials into invaluable products. At its essence, chemical engineering is the art of transformation, blending principles of chemistry, physics, and mathematics to devise ingenious solutions to complex problems. In the UK, this discipline finds itself at the heart of numerous industries, from pharmaceuticals and energy production to food processing and environmental management. 

What does a chemical engineer do? 

Innovation lies at the core of the chemical engineer’s mandate. Whether it’s developing cleaner energy sources to combat climate change, optimising manufacturing processes to minimise waste, or creating novel materials to revolutionise healthcare, chemical engineers are at the forefront of progress. Their ability to marry scientific rigour with practical ingenuity makes them indispensable in driving technological advancements that benefit society. 

From academia to industry, chemical engineers work hand in hand with chemists, biologists, physicists, and economists to tackle multifaceted challenges. In the face of global challenges such as climate change and resource scarcity, chemical engineers are tasked with optimising existing processes and spearheading the transition towards a more sustainable future.  

By championing renewable energy, developing eco-friendly materials, and implementing circular economy principles, chemical engineers play a crucial role in mitigating environmental impact and building a resilient society. 

Who would be best suited to a career in chemical engineering? 

A chemical engineer career demands a blend of analytical prowess, creative problem-solving skills, and a passion for innovation. Ideally, individuals most likely to excel in this domain possess the following characteristics: 

Strong analytical skills: chemical engineering often involves complex calculations, data analysis, and the ability to interpret intricate systems. A keen analytical mind is essential for understanding and optimising processes effectively. 

Innovative thinking: chemical engineers are at the forefront of innovation, driving progress in various industries. Therefore, a propensity for creative thinking and the ability to generate novel solutions to challenging problems are highly valued traits. 

Attention to detail: given the precise nature of chemical processes and the potential consequences of errors, meticulous attention to detail is crucial for ensuring safety and efficiency in the workplace. 

Adaptability: the field of chemical engineering is dynamic, with technologies and methodologies constantly evolving. Individuals who can adapt to new situations, embrace change, and quickly learn new concepts will thrive in this environment. 

Effective communication skills: chemical engineers often collaborate with multidisciplinary teams, communicate with stakeholders, and present findings to diverse audiences. Strong verbal and written communication skills are essential for conveying complex ideas clearly and effectively. 

Ethical and safety consciousness: upholding ethical standards and prioritising safety are paramount in chemical engineering. Individuals must demonstrate a strong commitment to ethical conduct, environmental stewardship, and adherence to safety protocols. 

Resilience: in the face of challenges and setbacks, resilience is key. The ability to persevere, problem-solve under pressure, and learn from failures is essential for long-term success in the field. 

Curiosity and continuous learning: a curious mindset and a commitment to lifelong learning are essential for staying relevant and advancing in the profession. 

Overall, individuals who possess a blend of technical acumen, creativity, adaptability, and a strong sense of responsibility are best suited to thrive in this industry.  

Types of chemical engineer 

In the UK, chemical engineers can work in various roles across different industries. Here are some common types of chemical engineering roles and what they include: 

  • Process engineer  

Responsible for designing, implementing, and optimising processes in industries such as oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, and chemical manufacturing. 

  • Plant engineer 

Oversees the operation and maintenance of chemical processing plants, ensuring safety, efficiency, and compliance with regulations. 

  • Research and development (R&D) engineer  

Works on developing new products, processes, or materials, often in collaboration with scientists and other engineers. 

  • Environmental engineer  

Focuses on designing and implementing processes to minimise the environmental impact of chemical processes, such as pollution prevention and waste management. 

  • Energy engineer  

Specialises in optimising energy usage and implementing renewable energy solutions in chemical processes. 

  • Safety engineer  

Ensures that chemical processes comply with health and safety regulations to protect workers and the environment from hazards. 

  • Quality control/assurance engineer  

Responsible for maintaining and improving the quality of products and processes through testing, analysis, and quality management systems. 

  • Project engineer/manager  

Manages engineering projects from conception to completion, including budgeting, scheduling, and coordinating resources. 

These roles can vary depending on the industry and specific company requirements. 

What do you need to become a chemical engineer?

What chemical engineer qualifications do you need in the UK?  

You typically need a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering or a related field such as chemistry or process engineering. Additionally, skills in problem-solving, analytical thinking, and communication are crucial.

Gaining experience through internships, or entry-level positions can also be beneficial for career advancement. Obtaining professional certification from organisations like the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) can enhance your credentials and marketability in the field. 

Chemical engineer role and responsibilities 

Typical roles and responsibilities of a chemical engineer include designing, developing, and optimising processes for the production of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, fuels, and other products. They often work in industries such as manufacturing, energy, pharmaceuticals, and environmental protection. Responsibilities may include process design, equipment selection, troubleshooting, and ensuring compliance with safety and environmental regulations. 

Working hours for chemical engineers can vary depending on the industry and specific job role. Generally, they work standard full-time hours, typically around 37-40 hours per week. However, occasional overtime may be required to meet project deadlines or address urgent issues. Some roles may also involve shift work or on-call duties, especially in industries with continuous manufacturing processes like oil refineries or chemical plants. 

Average salaries from chemical engineers are shown by region in our scientific salary guide 2024, and range from £41,765 in Scotland to £46,905 in the south west to £54,430 in London. 

You can find more about the average pay for chemical engineers by region along with many other popular roles in the scientific sector, plus insights about workplace benefits, in our scientific salary guide 2024.  

Chemical engineer career prospects 

Recruitment consultants who specialise in recruiting for engineers, like Reed, are well placed to help employers find the talented candidates they need, as well as match jobseekers to roles they’ll love.  

The introduction of AI to the field presents new opportunities for chemical engineers to branch out and apply their learning to exciting developments. According to ‘The chemical and pharmaceuticals industry is one of the UK’s largest industries. In 2021, chemical industry revenues in the UK stood at £75.2 billion’. 

More generally, the future looks bright for engineers. According to a recent EngineeringUK report, ‘almost three-quarters of graduates who studied engineering and technology (72.5%) were in paid work for an employer 15 months after graduation, which is higher than that for graduates from all other subjects combined (69.7%). 

Here are some typical employers that offer chemical engineer roles: 

  • Chemical and pharmaceutical companies 

Many opportunities for permanent staff and contractors can be found in large organisations as well as in engineering consulting firms in the UK. 

  • Research institutions and universities 

Institutions like Imperial College London, University of Cambridge, and University of Manchester conduct cutting-edge research in chemical engineering and may offer research and academia employment opportunities. 

  • Government agencies 

Organisations like the Environment Agency, Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) may have openings for chemical engineers, especially in regulatory and policy roles. 

  • Manufacturing hubs 

Cities with a strong manufacturing base, such as Manchester, Birmingham, and Teesside, often have opportunities for chemical engineers in industries like petrochemicals, polymers, and specialty chemicals. 

  • Renewable energy sector 

With a growing focus on sustainability, companies involved in renewable energy technologies like biofuels, hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage may also offer job prospects for chemical engineers. Networking through professional organisations, attending industry events, and utilising online job portals specific to engineering can also be helpful in finding employment opportunities. 

Looking to take the first or next step of your career in chemical engineering? Or perhaps you’re researching the average salaries chemical engineers can expect this year. Download our free scientific salary guide 2024 for all the information you need to make an informed decision. 

Visit our scientific pages to either find professionals for your teams, or to begin your job search in this exciting sector.