A consultant's work depends largely on one thing: what his or her client wants. "If a company is thinking about marketing a product, they often come to us for a sense of how they will stack up against the competition," says Ray Kurkjy, senior consultant at ChemSystems in Tarrytown, NY. To help his client, Kurkjy uses his chemical training, industry knowledge, and market contacts to study the viability of a client's plans. "People come to us because they can't ask the questions themselves. As consultants, we know the business, but we are not in the business ourselves. Through consultants, the necessary information for assessing the marketplace can be gathered without revealing the client's plans."
More technical projects for consultants might include a cost or production analysis. "In this type of project," says Kurkjy, "we help the client assess an investment. We gather data about equipment costs, study utility rates, evaluate the competitors' production processes, and analyze how our client's process compares. Taking environmental regulations and raw materials pricing into account, we project the cost of production." Sometimes clients will tell consultants what decisions they have made based on an analysis of the report. But often, a consultant's job will end right after the findings are submitted.
This kind of in-depth technical and business consulting requires chemical expertise and experience in industry. Kurkjy worked at Union Carbide for 35 years before becoming a consultant. His is only one of many routes into this field.
Roger Shamel, president of Consulting Resource Corporation in Lexington, MA, came to consulting via a different path. "While I was working on my master's in physical organic chemistry, I realized I didn't want to spend my career in the lab," he says. "I wanted to be with people, not baby-sitting distillation columns." Shamel decided to forego a Ph.D. and went to business school instead. There, the range of prior experience of his classmates-from aerospace engineers to humanities majors-made him realize the breadth of opportunity in business.
"Consulting is good for people who like to combine their analytical business capabilities with knowledge of science and technology. Consultants like to go out to talk to other people and pull information together from a variety of different sources." He adds that it is important to know your own skills. "Not all scientific people have the training to sell professional services," he says. "This is just as much a part of the business as are the research and analysis."
David Crow entered consulting with a B.S. in chemistry. He is now a worldwide managing partner for the process and energy industries at Andersen Consulting in Atlanta, GA. "As a management consultant, I don't use my chemical training at the formulation level," he says. "But it gives me a great understanding of what companies do and what their issues are relative to product and process development." Crow says consultants work on project teams that bring together various skills and areas of expertise. "Often," he says, "younger consultants are paired with more experienced professionals, who help teach them the ropes."
It is unusual for a recent graduate to specialize in chemical consulting. Whether possessing a technical degree or business degree, a consultant's first job is often in management consulting or working as a business analyst for large accounting firms. Other potential employers for consulting positions are engineering firms and environmental management companies.
Consultants anticipate that the need for their services will continue, though it will change with the advance of the information highway. "There will be a shift away from aspects of consulting that provide straightforward, published information, as a generation of young executives becomes more attuned to using computerized information," says Shamel. Opportunities for consultants will also emerge as international business develops.
In hiring new employees, consulting firms look for individuals who are flexible and are comfortable with a range of work activities. They must have good research, organization, and writing skills and be able to work well with other people. "We look very closely at interpersonal skills," says Crow.
For those who think they would like to go into consulting later in their careers, it is always useful to take business courses or keep business school in mind as an option. If you work in industry, Kurkjy advises getting experience in line functions such as manufacturing, research and development, and marketing.
Consultants play a combined role of journalist, lawyer, and teacher; they gather information, shape it for a particular situation, and educate their clients. In the chemical industry, consultants study products, markets, manufacturing processes, environmental regulations, and patents. With this information they assist executives in making business decisions concerning new products, acquiring other companies, or reorganizing internally.
Much of a consultant's time is spent gathering information. This means interviewing business managers; studying market trends; and reviewing technical literature, commercial literature, and patents. Working alone, consultants process this information and write reports for their clients. Ultimately, a consultant's work involves interaction with people in a broad range of specializations.
A number of firms consult exclusively for the chemical industry, and most major consulting firms have divisions that serve chemical processors. These firms provide specific technical and business services. Management consulting firms do some of the same work but often focus their efforts on business management and personnel. Large accounting firms are increasingly providing consulting services; and environmental management companies consult on regulations, permits, hazardous waste, and cleaner manufacturing processes.
Contacts and the ability to work with others are paramount in the consulting world. Individuals must have good interpersonal skills and an ability to present information clearly and persuasively. The ability to research and organize one's own time is also vital. Consultants describe themselves as people who like to pull information together from different sources. They like to blend their scientific knowledge and analytical skills, and above all, they like to work with other people.
Consulting draws people from a variety of educational and employment backgrounds. Most consultants who give business and technical support to chemical manufacturers come from industry themselves. Management consulting firms are more likely to hire someone out of college or business school. A technical degree will give a candidate a solid specialization, but people in the field highly recommend business courses or an M.B.A.
Consulting firms have been doing well as businesses reorganize and operate under changing economic conditions. This is a dynamic field with opportunity for growth. In the chemical industry, voluntary severance programs have led many older professionals into consulting. Younger people will find the job market competitive. Management consulting firms, accounting firms, and environmental management companies are more likely targets for employment. Business is also expanding internationally; economies in the Pacific Rim and South America are growing, and those in the former Soviet Union are emerging. Individuals willing to travel and live overseas may find opportunities there.
To find out what a person in this type of position earns in your area of the country, please refer to the ACS Salary Comparator. Use of the ACS Salary Comparator is a member-only benefit. General information about salaries in chemical professions can be obtained through published survey results.
Contact human resources personnel at large accounting firms and management consulting firms. Contact information should be available through your career counseling office. Trade magazines, such as Chemical Week, run articles and special issues on chemical consulting. Check these for the names of firms that consult directly to the chemical industry.
Students interested in consulting are advised to take business courses in addition to scientific training. Depending on where your interest lies, you may want to consider an M.B.A. If you think consulting is something you might like to consider later in your career, remember the importance of making contacts and keeping track of the overall business picture.