Even with crude oil at a seven-year low in early December 2015, oil companies are still recruiting on college campuses and interviewing students with the fields of study most in demand.
The wave of early retirement by baby boomer employees wealthy enough to stop working and avoid going through another painful bust is a trend that surprised many in the oil industry. The growing talent drain is so extreme that most oil executives view this as a critical issue.
Moreover, another reason the oil industry's pursuit of students with the most sought-after college degrees has not changed dramatically is that few believe fossil fuel is going away anytime soon. Wind, nuclear and solar power have their uses, but their efficacy is still limited.
When prospective students contemplate earning degrees to propel them into the oil and gas business, a petroleum engineering major is the first consideration for many. This is not surprising when the word "petroleum" is included in the description of the degree.
Looking at the top 15 most valuable college majors in any industry, petroleum engineering ranked ninth with a starting salary of almost $100,000. The mid-career median pay is $155,000, but this doesn't include the very generous pension and vacation benefits that many companies offer.
The top universities offering petroleum engineering degrees are the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, the Colorado School of Mines, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Tulsa and the University of Southern California.
Petroleum geologists determine where to drill for oil by studying the structure of rocks and minerals located beneath the surface of the Earth. This degree gained more demand recently as the growing oil and gas fracking business in the United States requires employees with the technical skills to master horizontal drilling and other new methodologies.
The national average salary of a petroleum geologist is $115,000.
Oil companies often employ chemical engineering graduates for the downstream part of the business.
The oil business is divided into downstream and upstream components. Upstream includes exploration and production, while the downstream needs chemical engineers to analyze chemical processes occurring in the oil refining end of the cycle. Oil refining is often stigmatized as the dirty pedestrian side of the oil business. However, the salaries for chemical engineers are competitive with petroleum engineers and geologists.
The mechanical engineering aspect of the oil and gas business often centers on large project design and implementation. This may include construction of refineries, pipelines and offshore oil platforms.
Specific skills required include a knowledge of fluid dynamics, thermal technology, 3-D modeling and complex construction methodologies. The work often occurs in the field in a variety of locales.
Half of the graduates from the University of Texas with mechanical engineering degrees find jobs in the oil and gas industry. Many universities offer five-year programs that award a student both bachelor's and master's degrees.
The average salary for mechanical engineers employed in the oil and gas industry is $116,000.
The Money Is in Technical Expertise
In addition to these top degrees, oil companies hire graduates with specialties in other fields, including civil engineering, mathematics and physics. Canada's Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) offers a two-year petroleum energy technology degree.
Graduates with business and liberal arts degrees are hired to fill roles in accounting, human resources and the other day-to-day functions that any business requires. People with these degrees face very different pay rates compared to those with technical degrees, although the benefits with most large oil and gas companies are very attractive
As the current bust in crude oil continues, a petroleum-oriented student probably has a few doubts about her choice of major. This is understandable, but the situation is not that grim.
Recruiters from oil companies are still showing up on college campuses, knowing that alternative energy is not economically feasible, and the world is a long way from achieving independence from fossil fuels. Moreover, there is also the issue of baby boomers taking early retirement from the industry. These engineers and other technical experts must be replaced.