UNITECR 2015: Refractories industry in need of new skills and opportunities

By Laura Syrett
Published: Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Sector in search of next generation of innovators; industry needs more than just engineers.

The global refractories industry is in urgent need of skilled professionals and innovative momentum, delegates at the 14th UNITECR held in the Austrian capital, Vienna, heard in September.

Addressing industry representatives from more than 50 countries on the topic of securing the refractories sector’s future, professor Anja Geigenmuller, head of marketing at Ilmenau Technical University in Germany, said that the industry is desperately in need of skills and innovation.

"Companies cannot conduct research during their day-to-day operations," she said and called on companies to allocate time, resources and personnel to R&D.

"We also need to bring the results of research into the industry community, so we can discuss outcomes and learn for the future," she said.

On recruitment, Geigenmuller stressed that the sector is not just in need of engineers. "We want people from a range of professional backgrounds," she said, pointing out that there are many opportunities in refractories and that the industry will benefit from having access to a wide skill set.

Institutions like the Ilmenau Technical University are using a range of initiatives to attract people into the refractories business, from social media campaigns to working with other independent organisations to spread knowledge and understanding about the sector.

One such body, the Federation for International Refractory Research and Education (FIRE), acknowledged that there are barriers to bringing people into the industry.

Speaking on behalf of FIRE, Chris Parr, vice president for product development at calcium aluminate specialist Kerneos Inc., said that one of the main challenges is finding people who are ready for an international career.

The refractories industry operates on a worldwide basis, he said, and explained that FIRE runs a number of programmes designed to encourage research into refractories technologies while offering a global perspective on the sector.

Another issue facing refractories companies seeking to deepen or refresh their skills pools is the seemingly uncertain future of the industry.

Sue Shaw, an analyst at UK-based Roskill Information Services, said that owing to its maturity and a drop off in demand from iron and steel makers, refractories consumption is only likely to grow at a rate of about 1% per annum until 2020.

"This isn’t what people necessarily want to hear when they are looking for a secure career," one chemical engineer, who works for a global refractories business but preferred not to be named, told IM.

"When they see other opportunities in sectors like nanotechnology and pharmaceuticals, many of which pay better than refractories, it is hard to sell it to students with big ambitions and big debts."

They added that advances in technology were less of a concern, however, owing to the accessibility of more sophisticated equipment and a rich store of research.

"In the end, what advances are made might come down to questions such as raw materials availability and recycling, rather than the performance objectives researchers originally set out to achieve," they said.