Petroleum engineers: Big Oil wants you

July 20, 2011: 2:11 PM ET

Enrollment in petroleum engineering programs at universities is swelling as more energy companies look to expand their American oil and gas exploration and drilling efforts. Is it time to send junior to petroleum engineering school?

By Shelley DuBois, writer-reporter

FORTUNE -- It doesn't roll off of the tongue quite like "doctor" or "lawyer" does, but "petroleum engineer" could be a contender for the kind of similar, sensible career that parents often wish for their kids.

Because the oil business is so lucrative and petroleum engineers have a unique set of skills, petroleum engineers have long enjoyed a healthy position in the job market. But thanks to a confluence of events, the U.S. job market is now particularly friendly to the profession.

There are approximately 28,000 petroleum engineers in the United States, according to the most recent estimate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, taken in May 2010. That number is up from just under 15,000 six years ago. By way of comparison, there are approximately 560,000 lawyers working in the U.S., according to Bureau estimates from May 2010.

Enrollment in petroleum engineering programs at universities is swelling, and for a host of reasons, most notably the rising price of oil. "Enrollment fluctuates with the price of oil and gas. You could almost plot it on each other," says Robert Chase, chair of Marietta College's department of petroleum engineering.

And, as is the case in other industries, Baby Boomers are aging out of oil engineering jobs, creating even more openings in the market.

But there's another factor that's contributing to the sweet spot in the petroleum engineer job market: in the past five years or so, big, wealthy American companies have gained access to new oil and gas reserves on their home turf.

These new oil and gas reserves are in a type of rock called shale, which is abundant in the U.S. Beginning about five years ago, it became cost-effective for major oil companies to drill for oil and gas in shale rock formations in the United States due to a method -- often referred to as fracking -- that involves fracturing the surrounding rock. Since fracking has taken off, big companies have turned their attention to the roughly 30 areas in the U.S. available for shale development in the United States.

America's two biggest oil and gas companies, Exxon Mobil (XOM) and Chevron (CVX) increased their shale assets recently: Chevron bought over 220,000 acres on the Marcellus shale in southern Pennsylvania this past May, and Exxon acquired rights to over 300,000 new acres of land near Marcellus this past June.

As of 2009, shale gas made up 14% of the U.S. natural gas supply, according to the Energy Information Association. The EIA expects it to contribute 45% of the U.S. gas supply by 2035.

To keep up with local production, enrollment at both graduate and undergraduate petroleum engineering programs has grown. In the last five years, enrollment in Texas A&M's graduate program has almost doubled and now includes over 200 students. Graduate programs at the University of Oklahoma, Pennsylvania State and Texas Tech (near the Woodford, Marcellus and Barnett shale formations, respectively) have shown similar or even faster growth rates.

The oil industry was ahead of the trend, talking to schools to ensure they would produce the necessary workers to meet demand. Seven years ago, Stephen Holditch started as head of the petroleum engineering department at Texas A&M University. An industry liaison asked the school to expand then, he says, to make sure there were enough U.S. engineers to fill vacant slots from rapidly-aging Baby Boomers.

"Even though we've doubled or tripled the number of graduates we have, there's still jobs for everyone," Holditch says, "and it's more than likely because of the shale gas development."

That trend is not exclusive to Texas A&M. Graduates from the Colorado School of Mines are getting snatched up too. In fact, 100% of students who graduated with a masters in petroleum engineering between December 2010 and May 2011 looking for jobs in energy engineering found them, says Jean Manning-Clark, the school's director of employer relations.

The percentage of employed graduates has remained very high even though petroleum engineering programs have grown, and the best candidates are getting multiple, high-paying job offers after graduation. The pattern should hold, Holditch says, even as the country's energy mix is changing.

Oil will play a major part in fulfilling American energy needs for the foreseeable future, and gas is becoming more and more important, meaning companies that sell those fuels will still need skilled workers to figure out the best way to get them out of the ground. So the next time your child tells you that they are on the fence about that law degree, petroleum engineering, anyone?

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About This Author
Shelley DuBois
Shelley DuBois
Writer - Reporter, Fortune

Shelley DuBois writes on management issues for Fortune.com. Before joining Fortune, she was a producer for National Public Radio's Science Friday and worked for Wired. Shelley has a graduate degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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