Visualizing A Career Path

Lab managers are responsible for recruitment and development of chemists and other lab professionals. They often have to explain to the rest of the world the value added by the chemists and also educate the new recruits on what the various jobs entail. For lab employees, better understanding of jobs and available career paths can contribute to higher levels of job satisfaction.

A report from the American Chemical Society (ACS)1 discusses the Voluntary Industry Standards for Chemical Process Industries Technical Workers Project and issues relevant to the employment and education of chemical laboratory technicians (CLT) and process technicians (PT). It presents a list of critical job functions performed by CLTs and PTs. However, the underlying basis of dividing up the work into certain functions is not clear. It is not obvious whether the list is complete and if the job functions are of the same or different levels of difficulty. The report includes a list of over 1,000 competencies linked to the job functions. It provides useful content but not the container.

Public labor market authorities in many countries have also created skills databases such as DISCO, O*NET and Taxonomy_DB.2 These databases are a good starting point for developing competency lists. However, it is not easy to comprehend the underlying patterns connecting different lists, and job types that have multiple levels are not included.

A job is not simply a set of tasks but is a part of an individual’s career. These common representations do not capture the fact that career paths are multidimensional and may have different levels. The traditional formats of job representation are acceptable but not very effective as communication tools. In today’s digital world, people are accustomed to seeing interactive, visual, and event-driven tools. They prefer representations that are rigorous yet simple.

The authors present a case study of refinery chemists (as an example) to illustrate how a new visual way of representing jobs might provide an efficient and effective method for answering the question “What do the chemists do?” It is very likely that some or all of the visual tools presented in this article will also accurately represent the jobs of over 35,000 (an estimate based on data in reference 3) chemists employed by the chemical, petrochemical and refining industries as well as other professionals employed by quality labs.

Case Study

There are approximately 717 oil refineries worldwide, of which about 132 are located in the United States.4 Oil refineries produce fuels such as gasoline, diesel and feedstock for chemicals and additives. Product quality is very important because it is mandated by local and federal and, in some cases, international regulations. Chemists play a very important role in ensuring safe operations, environmental compliance and profitability of a refinery. Oil refiners employ chemists to operate on-site laboratories, assure quality of the operations and provide technical support to analysts who conduct the tests. A typical refinery with 15 process units employs 10 to 15 professional chemists.

In 2008, Ecopetrol S.A. adopted a new job representation model and method for defining competencies for refinery engineers. The maps for all engineering disciplines were completed in June 2009, and a training program is underway to bridge the identified competency gaps. In July 2009, Ecopetrol decided to extend the same competency mapping approach used by engineers to all other professionals, including laboratory chemists at the refinery in Barrancabermeja. The Barrancabermeja refinery employs six professional chemists, 30 professional analysts and 10 technicians.

A core team consisting of a GP consultant (one of the authors) and laboratory training development team members was formed to develop the visual maps. In simple terms, each task done by an employee in a lab is broken down into an “action verb” and one or more “objects” of that action verb. For example if the task is “train analysts,” the action verb “train” is placed on the x-axis and the object “analysts” goes on the y-axis, creating a grid. In the next step, the action verbs are arranged by degree of difficulty from left to right and the objects are arranged based on degree of complexity as one moves up the y-axis. Each cell in the grid then represents a task, and the tasks become more difficult and complex as one moves away from the origin along the diagonal of the grid. Additional information on the underlying framework and steps for creating the maps is available in references 5 and 6.


The new job model was first applied to the job of professional chemists and later to the job of analysts. Application of the new job model revealed that the job of refinery professional chemists is linked to four different assets, each with its own requirements. The chemists manage the laboratory equipment and analysis techniques. They manage training and development for the analysts (internal client) and they provide customer support to various units in the plant (external client). Four maps were created to match the four different functions performed by the chemists. The equipment support function is illustrated in Figure 1. It shows the equipment life cycle on the x-axis (columns) and the equipment items on the y-axis (rows). P1, P2, etc., are job levels. Level P4 is the same as Junior Chemist. Level P1 is equivalent to a Principal Chemist.

Figure 1. Visual job profile: Equipment support by chemists.

The map for analytical technique support is shown in Figure 2. Technology adoption cycle steps are shown as columns, and the various analysis techniques are shown as rows. Figure 3 shows the map for working with external clients. The main activities associated with customer support cycle are shown on the x-axis (columns). The various processing units (or customers) are shown on the y-axis (rows). Figure 4 shows the map for the internal client training and development function. The main steps of the training and development cycle are shown on the x-axis (columns) and the various areas supported are on the y-axis (rows).

Figure 2. Visual job profile: Analytical technique support by chemists.
Figure 3. Visual job profile: External client support by chemists.
Figure 4. Visual job profile: Internal client support by chemists.


The four maps (Figures 1-4) together represent the job of a professional chemist at Ecopetrol. Creation of visual job and career paths using a common framework allows one to see how the jobs of professional chemists differ from those of other professionals. The job of refinery engineers and operators is linked to one cycle: the equipment life cycle. However, as shown above, the job of refinery chemists is more complex because they not only have to support the laboratory operations but also have to meet the expectations of the external clients. As expected, embedded within the four main cycles corresponding to the four maps are the classical problem-solving, opportunity identification and PDCA (continuous improvement) cycles that are common to many STEM professionals.

To reliably perform the actions shown in Figure 3 for the various chemical process units (clients), chemists need to be aware of the foundations of chemical engineering and basics of unit operations, such as heat exchange, distillation, etc. From Figures 1 and 3, chemists are required to provide support for the laboratory equipment and process units during abnormal conditions. They may need to participate in root-cause (after the abnormal event) and failure modes (to prevent future abnormal events) analysis sessions. Although training on the specific analysis techniques and tools will depend on the organization employing the chemists, having a fundamental understanding of statistics and probability would be very beneficial for a new chemistry graduate joining the company. Technical writing skills are important because refinery chemists are required to document test methods, maintain testing standards (Figure 2), document client issues, and recommend solutions (Figure 3).

As seen from Figure 4, additional skills required by laboratory chemists include the skills to train and coach. It is important to note that training and coaching are different. Training is more structured and formal. Coaching is more improvisational and tends to be one-on-one. During the execution of this project, it became clear that the bulk of the technical literature is still in the English language. Hence, the ability to read and comprehend the technical literature available in English is important for chemists working in non-English-speaking countries.

Training professionals have long recognized the importance of cross-discipline skills. The visual approach to representing jobs made it easy to determine the crossdiscipline skills and also provided additional evidence of the importance of these skills.


Lab managers should consider changing the format of all job descriptions from the classic bulleted list format to a visual, event-driven format similar to the maps developed in this study. The visual maps would help them share information about the jobs with potential clients and job seekers. The visual job representations would make it easy for the professional chemists and technicians working in the labs to visualize their career paths.

A single visual job representation method like the one described in this article is important for understanding how different professionals contribute to the mission of each lab. Deeper understanding of each other’s jobs has been shown to improve teamwork. It is also important for recognizing the common core skills that can help better utilize a lab’s training dollars.


The authors are grateful to Angela Corrales, leader of the Operational Excellence Team for Ecopetrol S.A. Without her coordination help, this work would not have been possible. Some of the comments made on an earlier version of this article by the reviewers of the ACS’s Journal of Chemical Education have been incorporated in this article. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of other entities mentioned in this article.

Published In

Top 10 Management Skills You Need Magazine Issue Cover
Top 10 Management Skills You Need

Published: October 1, 2011

Cover Story

Top 10 Management Skills You Need

To progress in their careers, lab managers, particularly those in their first management assignment, need to develop new skills. Often they had little opportunity to do this while working full time at the laboratory bench. Yet these skills are critical to success in their new management assignment.