They Herded Us Out Like Cattle: Stories of Job Loss and Coping

The anonymous blogger Chemjobber has been plying his trade as a writer for the past several years. By day, he is a process chemist at an unnamed drug/chemical manufacturer. “I'm anonymous because 'who I am' is really a distraction and it's not very interesting,” he says. “Also, it's a good way of keeping my personal and professional lives separate.” (See below for our conversation.)

Chemjobber’s one of the lucky ones these days to have a “professional life,” but he knows too well that many chemists and other scientists in the U.S. are out of work and struggling to cope. Spurred by news of impending layoffs at major manufacturers like Amgen and Merck, he recently started “The Layoff Project,” which aims to give a voice to unemployed chemists.

Subtitled “Chemists Helping Chemists Cope with Unemployment”, the Layoff Project is creating oral histories of layoffs in the pharma and chem industries, and offering advice for chemists struggling to find work.

Some of the layoff stories are downright ugly. “They herded us out like cattle,” says one QC chemist.

Other tales are not as dramatic but no less instructive: “My company also gave us a week to clear our out stuff, send goodbye emails and the like (we had full access to the network, minus the electronic notebook). I think it's a good week to clear out the clutter, touch base with folks that might help you down the road and let the initial shock/anger/depression pass. You'll think more clearly in a week's time. I did.”

Here are links to a few of the more poignant posts. And below Chemjobber talks about his project, what he's learned, and who, if anyone, is to blame for the layoffs chemists are experiencing.


Paul Thomas:
What was the impetus for the blog and the Layoff Project? Did you have some bad personal experiences with layoffs, though you're currently employed?

Chemjobber: The impetus for the blog is covered here and is basically still true: I survived a long job hunt during a tough time and knew that I was lucky. I also knew that there was no detailed, quantitative analysis of the chemistry labor market. So, I use some of my spare time to try to help other chemists find positions and also try to measure the quality of the job market. The blog also satiates my urges to be an amateur editorial writer and a self-taught (and not-very-good-at-all) labor economist.

The impetus for The Layoff Project is actually the movie "Up in the Air"; the movie tells the story of people who were let go and the people who are brought in to tell them the bad news. One of the more arresting parts of the movie is that actual laid-off people (not actors) re-enact when they were told of their positions being eliminated. With the state of the pharmaceutical/chemistry industry, I think it's important to prepare people (and myself!) for the possibility that they might become unemployed. Telling other scientists' and chemists' stories who have been there is a good way to do that.

I haven't had enough time in the industry to have seriously faced a layoff, but when I was at a major pharma, I saw one round of cuts and the aftermath of another.

Paul Thomas: Why do you remain anonymous as a blogger? How many people know you're the person behind Chemjobber?

Chemjobber: I'm anonymous because 'who I am' is really a distraction and it's not very interesting. Also, it's a good way of keeping my personal and professional lives separate.

Relatively few people know that I'm the person behind Chemjobber because not very many people care; my personal experiences in graduate school and work are just not that unique (although it's interesting when my professional life and the blog collide in coincidental and unexpected fashion).

Paul Thomas: You say the job market for chemists is "always bad." Have you seen any reason for optimism lately?

Chemjobber: When I say that, it's mostly facetious but with a grain of truth. When I started the blog in 2008, I think the market for chemists had not been good since ~2004 or so. I have had plenty of friends who had the opportunity to take part in the great late-90s and early 2000s expansion of the pharmaceutical industry (as I did when I got a job as a B.S. chemist in 1999.) So, we have seen the recent fat years.

We are now, of course, in the lean years. While things aren't as bad as they were in 2008-2009, I haven't seen any huge signs for optimism. However, I note that some of the top players in the chemical industry (BASF in particular) seem to be relatively healthy and seem to be making big moves in employment in the United States to take advantage of the employers' market in chemists. Perhaps there will be a company in pharma that will follow their lead, but I don't see it.

Scientist employment is more-or-less procyclical. When we have optimism in the broader economy, I will be more optimistic for R&D and manufacturing as a whole.

Paul Thomas: Who's to blame for the current lousy job market for chemists?

Chemjobber: I don't really know who is to blame for either the structural or the cyclical forces at play in the pharmaceutical world. While it's a fun (and satisfying!) game, it's not a useful exercise, in my opinion. We can't magically undo the outsourcing of manufacturing and research operations, the rise of the BRIC nations or increased regulatory scrutiny.

I do blame corporate leadership (as a whole) for not being blunt and/or honest about the long-term needs and goals of the industry. I don't think it's too much to ask for a little foresight (just a little) and some blunt talk about where they see the future of their employees' prospects. The average education level of pharmaceutical employees (and scientists, especially) is well above a bachelor's level. We are all adults and we can make our own decisions—but frank talk from corporate leadership (as opposed to cheerleading and overly optimistic projections) seems to be relatively rare. I think that they're loath to admit that they don't know where the industry is going, either.

--Paul Thomas

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