Chemical engineers design, develop and operate the processes and equipment used to change raw materials into useful products. They may work in a range of areas including environmental engineering, biochemical engineering, food engineering or waste engineering.
Graduate chemical engineers usually earn
$45K-$75K per year
Senior chemical engineers who work as team leaders or managers usually earn
$100K-$120K per year
Source: Robert Walters Global Salary Survey, 2015
Pay for chemical engineers depends largely on their qualifications, skills, experience and the industry they work in.
- Graduate chemical engineers usually start on about $45,000 to $75,000 a year.
- Mid-level chemical engineers usually earn between $75,000 and $95,000.
- Senior chemical engineers who work as team leaders or managers usually earn between $100,000 and $120,000.
- Principal chemical engineers, who are responsible for overseeing engineering projects, earn between $130,000 and $160,000.
People working in the petrochemical sector usually get paid more than those working in other sectors.
Source: Robert Walters Global Salary Survey, 2015.
(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our pay information)
What you will do
Chemical engineers may do some or all of the following:
- research and develop or improve designs for factory processes, including chemical processes such as those used to remove impurities in water or fuels
- research and develop new materials and procedures to help make production processes more efficient
- select materials and equipment to be used in factory processes
- examine the effects of industrial processes on the environment
- develop methods to control pollution
- study the efficiency and cost of factories and associated equipment
- prepare and present reports and proposals
- manage technicians and operating staff.
Skills and knowledge
Chemical engineers need to have knowledge of:
- process engineering
- chemistry, biochemistry and biotechnology
- environmental issues
- maths and physics.
Chemical engineers working in the food industry also need to have knowledge of food hygiene and microbiology.
- usually work regular business hours
- work in factories, laboratories and offices.
What's the job really like?
What does your job involve?
"Chemical engineering is the heart of any industrial process.
"Because it's so key to any industry, we're often involved in the up-front stuff. You'll hear it called a feasibility study or a concept study. For instance a client might come to us needing to upgrade their water supply to a specific standard for food and beverage use.
"We'd discuss some of the most common methods of doing that, as well as investigating other innovative solutions that we could apply. Then we'd put to the client a number of options, with the associated benefits, disadvantages and costs."
What do you enjoy most about your job?
"I really love working with people and with the client. I find it really rewarding, especially when you see something that you’ve designed come to fruition.
"I also like working with a team to help them achieve what they need to do. When you're working in a small project team for a long period of time you strike up a lot of really good friendships. That can mean the difference between coming to work because you have to, and coming to work because you want to."
Chemical engineer video
Emma talks about her role as a chemical engineer at New Zealand Steel - 2.05 mins.
In the steel mill my main job is monitoring quality, troubleshooting problems that we have while everything’s still running and basically just making sure that steel is moving from one process to the next.
A typical day for me – we are a 24/7 operation, so something that’s quite important to my job is making sure that product that we’re making is continuously moving. And if it’s held up for some reason, it’s part of my job to figure out why.
One of the biggest challenges about working with such large volumes of material is when something goes wrong. You don’t have a lot of time to fix it, and you’re under quite a bit of pressure to make sure that you’re continuing to make quality. So it’s about having the right skill set. Your maths and your physics do contribute to what you are doing in the workplace. But also, trusting the people that you work with to try new things, or to bring solutions in that will get you a fix.
To solve a problem I’ll start first by looking in the plant. What does the problem actually look like? What does it sound like? What does it smell like, sometimes? And then I’ll head back to my office, or to someone else’s office, and we can brainstorm and troubleshoot and figure out what’s happening and the best and fastest way to fix something.
What I get out of engineering that I don’t think I can get from another career is I get to try out a lot of new things here. I get to implement my own ideas, after a considerable amount of planning and research. It is really rewarding when you can see a result to what you’ve done. Whether that’s a measurable result like we produced x amount of tonnes, or we saved x amount of dollars. It’s quite cool being able to put that down to work that you’ve helped or been the leader in.
To become a chemical engineer you need a four-year Bachelor of Engineering or Bachelor of Engineering Honours degree specialising in any of the following:
- chemical and process
- chemical and materials
- materials and process
- chemical technology
To work in the food manufacturing industry, employers also accept a three-year Bachelor's degree in any of the following:
- food process engineering
- food technology
- food science.
To work in research and development, a higher degree, such as a Master of Engineering or relevant PhD, is required.
Engineering New Zealand accredits engineering degrees, which are recognised in many other countries.
A tertiary entrance qualification (NCEA Level 3) is required. You will need at least 14 NCEA Level 3 credits in each of calculus, physics and chemistry. Other useful subjects include English, and technology subjects such as design and visual communications.
Entry into some four-year Bachelor of Engineering programmes is extremely competitive (some institutions offer entry into the second year based on performance in an open first year).
Process or chemical engineers should be:
- able to make good judgements
- creative and innovative
- able to pay attention to detail
- patient and persistent
- practical and logical
- able to work well under pressure.
Any kind of work experience in a processing plant is useful for process or chemical engineers, as is engineering workshop or assembly experience, which can be learned through tertiary training.
Experience working in a team or organising people and projects is also useful.
BE (Hons) graduates who meet set requirements (usually around five or six years of work experience) may apply to Engineering New Zealand to gain registration as a Chartered Professional Engineer (CPEng).
Find out more about training
- Engineering New Zealand
- (04) 473 9444 - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.engineeringnz.org
What are the chances of getting a job?
Chemical engineers in demand
There has been an increase in the number of chemical engineers but still not enough to meet demand. Though demand is best for experienced engineers, there are good opportunities for graduates.
Chemical engineer and the related job, materials engineer, appear on Immigration New Zealand's long-term skill shortage list. This means the Government is actively encouraging skilled chemical engineers from overseas to work in New Zealand.
Growing need for chemical engineers in water infrastructure upgrade
Job opportunities for chemical engineers are growing in the water industry as the clean water and waste water infrastructure throughout the country gets upgraded.
Good opportunities with major chemical products companies
Despite major employers like Fonterra facing lower market prices, there is still good demand for engineers to oversee products of chemical engineering such as infant formula and fertilisers.
Oil and gas opportunities decline
There is less demand for chemical engineers in the oil and gas industry due to the worldwide downturn in the sector.
Work across a range of industries
Chemical engineers generally work for private companies across a range of industries such as:
- dairy or food processing
- wood, pulp and paper processing
- plastics production
- petroleum production
- water and waste treatment.
Some chemical engineers work for city or district councils, or at universities or other research institutes.
- Immigration New Zealand, 'Long-term Skill Shortage List', 19 February 2018, (www.immigration.govt.nz).
- Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) website, accessed June 2016, (www.ipenz.org.nz).
- Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, '2006-2014 Occupation Data' (prepared for Careers New Zealand), 2015.
- Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, 'Engineering Professionals Occupation Outlook', 2016, (www.mbie.govt.nz).
- Rashbrooke, M, writer/researcher, futureintech, Careers New Zealand interview, June 2016.
- Slane, P, Australasia director, IChemE, Careers New Zealand interview, August 2016.
(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our job opportunities information)
Progression and specialisations
Chemical engineers may move into management or project management positions. They may also become consultants at engineering consulting firms, or set up their own consultancies. Some chemical engineers may work at polytechnics or universities as lecturers.
Chemical engineers may specialise in certain industry areas such as:
Last updated 9 July 2019