Chemical engineering provides a vehicle for upward social mobility, says new report

Chemical engineering provides a vehicle for upward social mobility, says new report

13th February 2019

A new report by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) suggests that a career in chemical engineering provides significant opportunity for upward social mobility.

Social mobility: a survey of the UK chemical engineering profession has been produced by IChemE’s Diversity and Inclusion Working Group, a branch of the Institution’s London and South East Member Group.

The latest findings build on the results of a survey by the group in 2016, which looked at the effect of social background on university attendance, qualifications, and job prospects for chemical engineers. The report, entitled Social mobility and the chemical engineering profession in the UK, was published in mid-2017.

Yesterday’s report was launched in a live webinar and expands on the 2017 findings by measuring different indicators of social mobility. The report is driven by the results of a new survey conducted in December 2017, which asked respondents to describe their own social background and whether their class has changed because of their career. The survey received 1,226 responses from non-student, UK-based, IChemE members. Their answers were then combined with quantitative economic data.  

Across all respondents who identified a class, 74% identified as having come from a working or lower middle class background. Nearly half of the chemical engineers surveyed received some kind of means-tested benefits during childhood or study, with almost 90% of them from a working class or lower middle class background.

Of the total respondents, 43% identified as coming from a lower middle class background, with only 8% of respondents reporting to come from upper middle class backgrounds.

Nearly half the respondents (42%) felt their social class had changed as a result of their career in chemical engineering; three-quarters of which identified as coming from a working class background. This provides strong indication that a career in chemical engineering, and the professional status that comes with it, enables upward social mobility.

A key observation of the survey was that while a university degree can provide greater equality of opportunity, those from a working class background were less likely to study chemical engineering at a top ranking university (Cambridge, Imperial College London, Oxford and University College London*). 10.6% of working class respondents attended a top ranked university, compared to 16.5% and 24.1% of lower middle class and upper middle class respondents, respectively.

The survey also gave respondents the opportunity to give a self-assessment of their own social mobility. When asked about how social background may have held them back, a significant number of respondents shared the view that poor social background at school age can impact school grades and access to higher-ranking universities.

Reasons for feeling held back included inadequate schooling, a poor curriculum, lack of awareness of opportunities available through a lack of knowledge by parents and schoolteachers, and financial constraints that impacted on education. Ethnic origin and a lack of self-confidence in mixing with other social classes were also cited as reasons for feeling held back.

Although the profession was found to be accessible to those from less advantaged backgrounds, 34% of those from working class families believe it is becoming harder for socially disadvantaged people to succeed in chemical engineering. This view was shared by 11% of people from an upper middle class background.

The study reaffirmed previous findings that work experience significantly helps job prospects following graduation. Of the 639 respondents who gained work experience (such as a summer placement, year in industry, or internship) whilst at university, 72% secured employment immediately after their education, and 87% within six months. Comparatively, of those who did not undergo work experience (174), only 52% gained a job immediately; and 73% within the first six months. The study found no correlation between social background and whether a person gained work experience.

IChemE Trustee and Diversity Champion Wendy Wilson, who was co-author of the report, said:

“Creating a more equal society is important to help realise social and economic benefits. Addressing matters of equality, diversity and inclusion not only support a better social construct but will help provide the techno-economic benefits that support a better society.

“Social mobility is a complex issue and there are many challenges in identifying, categorising and analysing its presence and influence. Therefore, IChemE's Diversity and Inclusion Working Group has been working with members to better understand the opportunities and threats to upward social mobility in chemical engineering in the UK.

“Our findings support the conclusion that a career in chemical engineering enables upward social mobility. However, 34% of those from a working class background felt that it’s becoming harder for people from a socially disadvantage background to succeed in the profession. We therefore must not be complacent, and should look at ways that the profession can improve accessibility to chemical engineering.”

Read the full report at You can watch a recording of the report launch on IChemE’s YouTube channel


* The top tier universities for chemical engineering were identified as Cambridge, Imperial College London, Oxford and University College London in the 2016 QS World University Rankings.


Social mobility: a survey of the UK chemical engineering profession

Diversity - IChemE


For more information please contact:

Rachael Fraser, Communications Executive, IChemE
t: +44 (0) 1788 534435

Ketna Mistry, Communications Executive, IChemE
t: +44 (0) 1788 534484

David Walker, Policy Officer, IChemE
t: +44 (0) 207 3046847

What is chemical engineering?

Chemical, biochemical and process engineering is the application of science, maths and economics in the process of turning raw materials into everyday, and more specialist, products. Professional chemical engineers design, construct and manage process operations all over the world. Oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, food and drink, synthetic fibres and clean drinking water are just some of the products where chemical engineering plays a central role.


The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) advances chemical engineering's contribution worldwide for the benefit of society. We support the development of chemical engineering professionals and provide connections to a powerful network of around 37,000 members in 100 countries.

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