Petroleum engineers

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.

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