The petrochemicals sector appears to be in a buoyant mood
Salary progression is solid, and professionals are optimistic about adopting AI technology – both in terms of impact on the sector and their own careers. However, there are signs that may call for a more careful consideration of future skill requirements.
A tight labour market has seen petrochemicals salary sentiment soar to pre-pandemic levels. Sixty per cent of professionals report an increase in the last year, compared to 50 per cent the year before and 55 per cent before Covid-19.
Hiring managers report even higher numbers: 69 per cent say pay has increased in the sector, compared to 65 per cent last year. Big rises also seem more common, with 45 per cent putting that increase above five per cent – just 35 per cent said so last year. Both hiring managers and professionals expect even greater movement next year, with 80 per cent and 75 per cent expecting rises, respectively.
The petrochemicals workforce remains a globally mobile one: 81 per cent of professionals would consider relocating – almost identical to last year’s 83 per cent – and over a third of respondents are expatriates.
Career progression remains the primary driver for making a move (47 per cent), with lifestyle and low cost of living a distant second (13 per cent). The most popular destinations remain Europe (33 per cent), the Middle East (21 per cent) and North America (13 per cent).
For those reluctant to relocate, 43 per cent say proximity to family is the main barrier. A further 12 per cent point to concern over their children’s education. Combined with apparently high satisfaction with salary progression, it seems some in the petrochemicals workforce are relatively settled for the time being.
Attracting and retaining talent
A large majority (87 per cent) of respondents are open to moving roles. Though a move within the sector is the most attractive (57 per cent), a significant percentage are open to moving to another energy sector (45 per cent), or to another industry entirely (23 per cent).
The adjacent oil and gas sector is the most popular destination as in previous years: 52 per cent would consider this move, and 29 per cent of oil and gas professionals would consider a move to petrochemicals, demonstrating the connectedness of the sectors. However, 38 per cent of respondents say they would consider a move into renewables this year – a five per cent jump on last year, and interest in renewables is even higher among engineers (43 per cent). Power is a very distant third (seven per cent).
Sharon Barclay, Chief Human Resources Officer at Monument Chemical, comments: “There is growing concern for sustainability in the chemical industry, as in all sectors, so it’s no surprise to see interest in renewables increasing. However, I think it reflects that, as an industry, we need to communicate our sustainability story better. There are huge opportunities to drive sustainability in chemicals, whether you’re looking at sustainable aviation fuels or new ways to create products from waste streams. It’s exciting, and we need to emphasise that.”
As in previous years, career progression remains the primary motivator for switching (33 per cent). Interest in the wider industry (16 per cent), remuneration and benefits (11 per cent), and ESG (seven per cent) are notable factors, but trail by a large margin.
Petrochemical professionals are also in high demand: 82 per cent have been approached for another role in the past year, and 11 per cent have been contacted more than 20 times. Engineers are in particularly high demand, with 86 per cent having been approached.
Janette Marx, CEO of Airswift, warns: “This is a tricky situation for hiring managers: people report high openness to moving not just within the sector, but also beyond it. Yet, they’re also relatively happy with how salaries are going, so retention isn’t as simple as offering more money. Above all, professionals in the petrochemical space need to see a viable and attractive path for progression.”
AI in the workplace
Despite its affinity with the oil and gas sector, petrochemicals is closer to renewables when it comes to the apparent adoption of AI. Though most (58 per cent) do not currently use AI in their role, 30 per cent already do, and a further eight per cent expect to do so within six months.
With a rapid uptake expected within the next six months, it is encouraging that a third of respondents report that their workplace already has an AI policy (though seven per cent are yet to read it). Thirteen per cent are unsure whether such a document exists. Where policies are in place, these tend to focus on explaining the benefits and/ or objectives of using AI (reported by 59 per cent) and maintenance of data protection, integrity, and security (53 per cent).
Popular AI choices
There are no clear winners in terms of which AI tools petrochemicals professionals are turning to. The most popular are machine learning (used by 17 per cent), generative AI such as ChatGPT (also 17 per cent), robotic process automation (16 per cent) and artificial general intelligence (14 per cent).
The top use cases for these tools are automated workflow and collaboration (25 per cent), and safety and inspection improvements (24 per cent) – the same top pair as in oil and gas (both 23 per cent).
Marx notes, “Both petrochemicals and oil and gas are hazardous industries, and it’s good to see that for professionals in these sectors, one of the first impulses is to explore how new technologies can help keep people safe.”
The future of AI
A lack of soft skills, such as leadership and communication, is the number one challenge to making greater use of AI, followed by insufficient investment in AI applications. Lack of clarity over which tools best fit the company is third – in contrast to oil and gas and power, where this uncertainty is the top barrier.
Petrochemicals is also among the most optimistic about AI’s future impact, with 51 per cent being ‘very optimistic’, behind only the power sector (53 per cent).
Marx continues: “Consider these things in combination. Petrochemical professionals are optimistic about the impact of AI and are laserfocused on safety. They also wisely identify leadership and investment as the key barriers to uptake. Together, these factors suggest that the petrochemicals sector is doing a good job of approaching AI strategically.”
Nearly a third (32 per cent) of respondents say that AI will help the sector optimise products, services and/or solutions. A quarter say it will boost research, development, and innovation (25 per cent) and reduce labour costs (24 per cent). Similar numbers expect improved predictive analytics and forecasting (23 per cent), reduced production or operating costs (22 per cent), and increased creativity and critical thinking (21 per cent).
Respondents are similarly optimistic about how AI might impact them personally in the next two years: 73 per cent expect a boost in productivity, 58 per cent look forward to increased job satisfaction, and 57 per cent anticipate both better career progression and more time with family and friends.
That being said, professionals also recognise the risks that AI may pose. In the next two years, 41 per cent are concerned over a lack of human or personal touch, 35 per cent worry that lack of training could lead to misuse or poor adoption and 26 per cent are concerned about cyber security. Only 13 per cent were confident there would be no concerns at all.
AI skills for the future
However, professionals do not expect to simply sit back and benefit from the promise of AI. Most (63 per cent) believe it will also increase pressure on them to study or learn new skills.
When asked which skills would be in greater demand due to the increasing use of AI, respondents point to technical skills such as programming/software engineering, data science, cyber security and machine learning. Far fewer look to soft skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovative thinking, and leadership and communication skills.
Professionals are interested in developing skills that broadly match what they believe will be needed, with engineers particularly interested in developing data visualisation skills.
Barclay observes: “It’s jarring that lack of leadership and communication is said to be the top challenge for greater AI adoption today; yet, they rank so lowly in professionals’ estimation of which skills will be in greater demand and which they personally expect to develop. This raises the question of the discrepancy between the two. What are we to make of that? Perhaps some believe that today’s leadership is sufficient and just needs more time, or possibly ambitious professionals might conclude that there are greater opportunities in these soft skills than they initially thought.”