Demand for petroleum engineers is great, with salaries to match

Demand for petroleum engineers is great, with salaries to match

It’s a great time to have a newly minted degree in petroleum engineering.

The recent dip in oil and gasoline prices hasn’t dented an over-the-top demand for entry-level petroleum engineers and others with energy-related technical educations, experts say.

A graduate with a degree in petroleum engineering can expect a starting salary of $70,000 a year, sometimes more, said Margaret Watson, manager of public relations for the Society of Petroleum Engineers. The most highly recruited graduates can expect an even bigger paycheck, along with benefits that may include a signing bonus or a company car.

Demand for petroleum engineers has gotten especially intense in the past year or two, said David Dunlap, vice president of BJ Services Co., an oil field services company in Houston. And it’s not just petroleum engineers who are in demand.

“Demand is great for a mix of engineering disciplines,” said Dunlap, also president of the company’s international division. BJ Services is using paid internships to attract students and generate excitement about the field.

Dunlap was in San Antonio Monday at the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ annual technical conference and exhibition, continuing at the Convention Center through Wednesday. Among the hottest topics are new techniques for finding oil and gas. But there’s also buzz about the worker shortage.

The shortage of new petroleum experts has its roots in the oil bust of the mid-1980s, when layoffs devastated many careers. Enrollments at universities dropped and some petroleum engineering departments even disappeared. Dunlap said the number of U.S. universities with departments offering a petroleum engineering degree dropped from 24 to about 13.

It’s also worrisome that the average age of Society of Petroleum Engineers members is 48 and “we know that about 40 percent of those working in North America will be retiring in the next decade,” Watson said.

But the booming energy industry and high salaries are once again attracting students. The number of freshman enrolled in Texas A&M University’s undergraduate petroleum engineering program has jumped to 209 this fall compared with 144 last year.

The number of graduates also is rising: for the 2005-06 school year, Texas A&M graduated 45 with bachelor’s degrees in petroleum engineering, 40 with master’s degrees, and four with doctorates. For the 2006-07 term, it expects to award 76 bachelor’s degrees, 43 master’s and seven doctorates in petroleum engineering.

“Because the industry is so high-tech-intensive, we need to attract IT-savvy people,” said Jeanne Perdue, an editor at Zeus Development Corp., a Houston-based energy publishing and consulting company. The problem, she said, is that “you can get people from the IT world or from the oil-and-gas world,” but prospective hires with expertise in both fields are rare.

“Right now, there’s no good pipeline for generating people from both areas,” Perdue said.

This gap exists at a time when the need for highly educated experts is greater than ever.

Last month, Chevron Corp. and two partners electrified the industry when they announced they had found a new deposit of oil in the Gulf of Mexico that may hold 3 billion to 15 billion barrels ”” potentially more oil than at the Alaskan North Slope.

The oil, however, lies more than 5 miles down. Chevron and partners Devon Energy Corp and Statoil ASA of Norway drilled a test well to a depth of more than 20,000 feet beneath the sea floor in 7,000 feet of water.

“Ten years ago, nobody would’ve dreamed of drilling that well,” said BJ Services’ Dunlap.

“We’re going to need the brightest young minds to reach these places.”

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