MarApr - Guest column
Students need soft skills for hard times
By Ravi Ramachandran
I’m often approached by graduate students asking how to prospect for jobs in industry. Many express a sense of despair, and wonder if their efforts and investment of several years in the prime of their life will be valued much in the real world. News of multinational chemical and pharmaceutical companies shutting down their corporate research laboratories in Canada and the U.S., and the resulting loss of thousands of research and development positions, adds to their anxiety. Many transnational companies are establishing new corporate research programs outside of North America and setting up large research centres in countries like India and China. This is because it’s cost effective and there’s a large pool of skilled workers and a growing economic prowess in the region. What should a student or a recently laid-off chemist do in such an economy? How can they prepare to compete in a global market where the geographical boundaries do not exist for talent acquisition?
Canadian universities, for the most part, provide graduate students with ‘hard’ skills such as research methodology and the ability to write research papers and present findings at conferences. But they do not teach courses that sharpen ‘soft’ skills, which are greatly valued by industrial employers. To succeed in industry, one needs to translate his or her training to be an effective communicator, persuasive presenter, skillful negotiator and efficient problem solver. Many career opportunities for chemists in industry are, in fact, outside the lab in such functions as chemical regulations, risk assessment, health, safety and environment management, licensing and technology, intellectual property and business development. Many small and medium enterprises, which are the primary engines of job creation in Canada, look to recruit talented people who can bring a multiplicity of these skills to their workplace.
Is our university education system keeping up with this changing landscape for our future work force? I would argue that it is not. Most faculty members at our universities are unaware of the business and management processes involved in industrial research and product innovation. We could help educate our students on the industrial perspective of value creation by recruiting industry based scientists and business leaders as adjunct professors at Canadian universities and colleges, who would bring their experience to life by teaching courses focused on business management topics such as R&D stage gates, innovation process, intellectual property management and monetization, and regulatory science, to name a few.
We should also encourage more students to become ‘technopreneurs’ — entrepreneurs who build a business based on their own research or a technology licensed from a university. For such entrepreneurship to flourish, we should create an ecosystem at our educational institutions that offers business courses to science students and mentorship programs connecting aspiring entrepreneurs with business leaders.
Given this climate, the board of the Canadian Society for Chemistry (CSC) is working to provide its members with much-needed support for career planning and professional development. As part of this service to its members, the CSC has planned a career development day on May 29 at the upcoming 96th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition in Québec city. The day will include a career mentorship forum with a panel of experienced industry and human resource experts and a workshop on emerging new models of industry-academic partnerships. Find out more at www.csc2013.ca.
Ravi Ramachandran is the Director of Local Sections and career services leader for the CSC. He is manager of chemical services at Syngenta Canada, Inc.
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