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Talent strategy in chemicals: Q&A with Susan Christensen

Chemical companies should act now to build a future workforce that is satisfied and productive.

Susan Christensen

Susan Christensen
Managing Director 
Accenture Strategy, Talent & Organization
Twitter - Accenture Chemicals


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Why is it important for chemical companies to have a comprehensive talent strategy in place?
The chemical industry landscape is shifting. Geopolitical market dynamics, the shale boom, carbon emission standards, digital and technological advancements, and shifting customer needs are just a few of the trends that represent both risk and opportunity for chemical companies.

Chemical operations in North America are positioned for rapid growth after years of decline, and new market players from emerging countries and nontraditional industries are coming onto the scene at an unparalleled pace. I fundamentally believe that leading and thriving in this environment will be about having the right workforce—a workforce that brings innovation and creativity, digital and technological savvy, deep experience and industry know-how, partnerships, and diversity of thought.

These shifts are also happening at a time of rapid workforce demographic changes. It is no secret that baby boomers are retiring just when their managerial skills and operational experience is needed most. Millennial hires—with their critical digital skillsets—are staying in entry-level positions only a few years before moving to other companies. Plant, craft-based work is viewed less desirably as a whole, and most of the university talent with chemical degrees, especially in North America, is going into other fields.

Chemical companies must rethink their requirements for talent and their approach to source, attract and retain it. Those with a full-scale talent strategy and the right organizational and technology decisions to support it, can stave off these issues, drive to new levels and build a satisfied and productive workforce of the future.

What specific talent-related challenges and opportunities are chemical companies facing?
Attrition at both ends of the demographic spectrum is causing chemical companies to rely heavily on the remaining workforce in the middle—to not only do their jobs, but also recruit and retain new talent. Unfortunately, this middle group is relatively small, especially in North America because of nominal hiring in the last decade because of slower industry growth.

I’ve always been a believer that where there is challenge, there is also tremendous opportunity. Given the demand for new and innovative products, the industry has an opportunity to paint a very bright future. The key is for chemical companies to act now. Every decision that chemical companies make today about their talent acquisition and retention strategies has the potential to drive long-term competitive advantage.

Why is it important to act now, and what should chemical executives do?
The majority of executives I talk to understand that the workforce challenge is exceedingly real. In fact, Accenture and the American Chemistry Council recently released the results of a new talent survey that explores the challenges and opportunities across three key areas.

Paradoxically, the research also shows that these same executives believe they have the right workforce in place to meet the future needs of their companies. This complacency could be their greatest risk.

In the digital era, companies in many industries are evaluating the advantages of new talent management approaches. They also see great promise in enabling technology capabilities—such as automation, robotics, virtual reality and cognitive agents—to address workforce issues. But chemical companies historically have been slow to adopt new technologies. It’s time to do more. A combination of simple, yet immediate strategic investments as well as longer-term actions will help overcome the talent shortage. For example, investing in technologies that augment people’s capabilities frees them to accomplish more value-added tasks. This could be a game-changer for the industry.

Your energy and excitement around the topic of talent is contagious. How did this become your area of expertise?
I’ve spent my career helping companies develop and navigate talent and organizational change journeys. My experience, which is backed by research, has been that companies who make investments in technology or assets without a parallel investment in the organization and its leaders ultimately fail. People are the essence of any company and helping them contribute meaningfully in their roles can have a lasting impact, not only on the company but on society at large.

What are your passions outside of work?
As a native of the West Coast and having grown up as the daughter of a park service ranger, I am an outdoor enthusiast. I love the ability to bike and hike wherever I go, and I live in a town with great access to these activities. Right now, my husband and I are working on our goal of visiting as many national parks in North America as possible.