What type of innovations are needed for climate solutions and better recycling of plastics in a circular economy? How do we continue to find effective medicine for diseases ? Or how do we ensure that no one is hungry when there will be more than 10 billion of us? There are many social challenges for which the chemical and life sciences sector is constantly looking for answers.
It happens through trial and error, but the sector is already working hard on the innovations of the future today. Firstly, it’s human work and it requires talent, both in the control room and in the lab. Whether they excel in technology, are strong in science, are digital whizz-kids or have other talents, in the chemical and life sciences industry young people can really make a difference and contribute to a more sustainable world.
Every molecule or new production process, every discovery or innovation, every medicine or new material. It is always the sum of the knowledge and expertise of people with various skills: scientists, process operators, engineers, technicians, commercial and support staff at all levels. Together they conceive, build, maintain, operate and manage complex industrial installations with an eye for safety and quality.
They follow in the footsteps of Belgian researchers and world-renowned entrepreneurs such as Ernest Solvay, Leo Baekeland, Lieven Gevaert, Paul Janssen or Marc Van Montagu. They have left their mark throughout the world on the development of plastics, photography, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology through their chemical innovations.
Their pioneering work is continued today by more than 90,000 employees in the sector thanks to whom all those molecules find a valuable application in the daily lives of each and every one of us. Together they ensure that the chemical and pharmaceutical sector is by far the Belgian export and innovation champion, with which the sector makes a major contribution to the prosperity of our country.
That’s how a small country like Belgium has built up a worldwide reputation in the field of chemistry and life sciences. Almost all the leading international chemical and pharmaceutical companies have a production site or research lab in our country. Together they form the economic breeding ground for numerous SMEs and start-ups, in chemistry and life sciences as well as in other sectors. This makes the chemical and pharmaceutical industry one of the strongholds of Belgium’s economy.
If the sector wants to continue to play that leading role for the decades to come, it must dare to raise the bar and cherish the ambition to be the most attractive employer for every student, every job seeker, every professional. The number of jobs in the sector has been increasing for five years in a row and the battle for talent is more than ever a major and daily challenge. Certainly because 1 in 3 employees is older than 50 and too few women and migrants yet to find their way to a job at one of the sector companies.
This means that the chemical and life sciences sector must first and foremost communicate more clearly to young people and to other age and target groups. The sector has an inspiring and compelling story to tell about the way in which it offers practical solutions for our daily comfort, but especially about how it contributes to the achievement of the sustainable development goals throughout the world. For instance, through better healthcare, energy-efficient homes and transport, climate-friendly technologies and a high-quality food supply for a growing world population.
Making this social added value clear in an authentic and genuine way is perhaps the most important assignment for the coming years. This requires more transparency and sustained efforts to adjust prejudices and to combat ignorance. Just like the rest of society, the chemical and life sciences industry is facing a crucial transition phase. To successfully implement this, many women and men are needed with smart ideas and skilled hands.
In this way they are given the opportunity to contribute to a sustainable society. But that is only possible if the work itself is also sustainable. That means: varied, meaningful and sustainable in the short and long term. There is a strong commitment within the sector to ensure a working environment that gives opportunities to employees at all levels, puts teamwork to the fore, offers prospects for exciting careers, places talent equally alongside diplomas and fully encourages lifelong learning.
An important lever to inspire more young people for a job in the sector is better interaction between education and industry. Schools and companies can and must collaborate even more often and more closely, for example through company visits with the class or guest lessons where employees come to testify passionately about their job. The other way around, teachers can sample the most recent technological evolutions and the skills required for this during teacher internships.
The sector even wants to go one step further. Many schools are struggling with a shortage of professional subject teachers, especially for technical and scientific subjects such as mathematics or chemistry. It is precisely those subjects that are extremely important for the shaping and training of talent for the chemical and life sciences sector.
With an administratively simple and flexible system whereby industry employees can also stand in front of the class for a few hours a week after a short pedagogical training programme, education and business create a win-win situation: more available subject teachers and more practical lessons.
Such interaction narrows the gap between the school desk and the workplace, between education and the labour market. It helps to better understand each other’s needs and wishes and to develop joint actions and initiatives based on shared understanding, with attention to the most vulnerable in society. In this way we make education industry-ready and it becomes clearer for students to see the link between textbook studies in class and concrete application of what they are learning.
This exchange does not have to be limited to secondary education. Such cross-fertilisation with industry is also particularly valuable at colleges and universities. More mobility between academia and industry offers students the opportunity to gain practical industrial experience, both at home and abroad. And attracting top talent from abroad should not be taboo either.
Technical and scientific STEM studies (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) are the breeding grounds for the talent that the chemical and pharmaceutical sector needs. But compared to other industrialised countries, our country scores poorly on the inflow and outflow of young people in these disciplines.
The promotion of STEM education, from kindergarten to university lecture halls, therefore remains a vital mission. Through strategic partnerships with science centres such as PASS and Technopolis, the sector wants to show children in a fun way that choosing STEM offers many opportunities for exciting jobs in which they can make a big difference to our society.
Even so, STEM study options still have too little appeal, while technical education continues to struggle with a weak image. The idea that science and technology is not for girls is also a persistent prejudice that blocks the way for many a talent. It is the shared responsibility of society as a whole to change this. That is why innovation in teaching is essential at all levels of education.
The chemical sector is a pioneer in dual learning, a combination of learning at school and learning in the workplace. It is the perfect way for students to gain practical experience in a realistic working environment. By extending this system to higher education, including for Master’s degree students, young people acquire not only technical knowledge but also social skills or soft skills, such as learning to work together in multidisciplinary teams.
More work placements, with a longer duration and tailored to the industry, can also be a powerful lever to make that connection with work attitudes and the culture of the business world faster and better. To take learning to the next level, innovative didactic applications such as virtual reality and digital learning platforms must be fully integrated.
The demand for new insights and skills is therefore particularly high. Young people need to learn the cross-curricular skills needed to set up a circular economy in which the reuse of raw materials and energy sets the tone. They have to be trained in the latest technological and scientific developments to keep up with the increasing automation, digitisation and robotisation. Existing employees therefore also need lifelong learning with relevant training in all phases of their careers.
The chemical and life sciences industry responds to this with the development of a customised training offer through various sectoral training centres. This is done in close collaboration with the social partners and the sectoral training fund, Co-valent. ACTA, Cefochim, PlastIQ, and from 2021 also ViTalent, are sector-specific competence centres with adapted infrastructure where employees, students and job seekers can train for a wide range of positions in the chemical, plastics and life sciences industry. For this, there is close cooperation with the education world, FOREM and the VDAB.
In addition, these training centres are an important link to put disadvantaged groups on the right path to a job in the sector. For example, there is the SIRA project in the Antwerp region that has been training young job seekers without suitable qualifications since 1987 to become process operators for the chemical sector. Such initiatives deserve expansion to the rest of the country with extra attention for target groups that are not yet being sufficiently reached, such as new Belgians of the second and third generation.
These training centres and employment campaigns are a good example of the long tradition of social dialogue in a sector that was also at the basis of the Social Pact just after the Second World War. This constructive relationship between employers’ and employees’ organisations is being continued in the Demographic Fund, with which the sector provides an answer to demographic evolutions and the ageing workforce.
The Demography Fund offers substantive and financial support for all kinds of measures concerning workable work in the sector companies. The focus is on four areas of action: work, health, skills and career policy. This often involves tailor-made solutions per company so that employees can perform their job in a feasible and motivated way. This unique initiative proves that a constructive social dialogue produces concrete results. And that is necessary, because there is still much work to be done on more and better work.