Oil companies are recruiting on college campuses and interviewing students in four key fields of study. A wave of early retirement by baby boomer employees—many wealthy enough to stop working to avoid going through another painful bust in the industry—is a trend that has taken the oil industry by surprise. The talent drain is so extreme that many oil executives view this as a critical issue.

Moreover, there is another reason why the oil industry's pursuit of students with the most sought-after college degrees has not changed dramatically. It's because few people believe fossil fuels will be going away anytime soon. Wind, nuclear, and solar power have their uses, but their efficacy is still limited and fossil fuels is expected to remain in high demand for the foreseeable future.

Key Takeaways

  • The oil industry has stepped up hiring of college graduates, as many workers retire from the field.
  • Petroleum engineering is a degree that's highly sought by oil companies, as these grads typically have solid backgrounds in both math and science.
  • The oil industry is also hiring chemical engineers, geologists, and mechanical engineers.
  • People with liberal arts degrees are often hired within the oil industry as well, but the salaries are much different compared to highly paid engineers.

Petroleum Engineering

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.

Many petroleum engineers collaborate with geoscientists and other engineers to make sense of the geologic formations of rock that contain oil and gas. They are experts in designing drilling equipment, drilling methods, operations, and drilling plans.

Aspiring petroleum engineers should have high proficiency in math, such as algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. The sciences—biology, chemistry, and physics—are equally important.

The top universities offering petroleum engineering degrees are the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, Stanford University, Colorado School of Mines, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Tulsa.

Petroleum Geology

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 U.S. requires employees with the technical skills to master horizontal drilling and other new methodologies. California Institute of Technology, University of Colorado at Boulder, and Columbia University offer top degrees in this field off study.

Chemical Engineering

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 within the industry are relatively competitive with petroleum engineers and geologists. 

Mechanical Engineering

The mechanical engineering aspect of the oil and gas business often centers on large project design and implementation. This may include the construction of refineries, pipelines, and offshore oil platforms.

Specific skills required include 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.

Some universities, such as Purdue University, offer 5 or 6-year programs that award a student a bachelor's and master's degrees.

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. For example, 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 different pay rates compared to those with technical degrees, although the benefits with most large oil and gas companies are attractive.

Bottom Line

Recruiters from oil companies are showing up on college campuses, knowing that alternative energy is not sufficient to meet demand, and the world is a long way from achieving independence from fossil fuels.

Moreover, there is also the issue of baby boomers retiring from the industry. These engineers and other technical experts must be replaced. Students with the right education can help fill the void.