Stand Tall and Speak Up: Where Will the Next Generation Come From?
- Eve S. Sprunt (2006 SPE President)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- Journal of Petroleum Technology
- Publication Date
- June 2006
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 12 - 14
- 2006. Copyright is retained by the author. This document is distributed by SPE with the permission of the author. Contact the author for permission to use material from this document.
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One of the things an SPE President is supposed to do is encourage students to study petroleum engineering. With the age demographics in the industry and the current high oil prices, this might seem like a “no brainer.” But, memories of the 1980’s gave me pause.
The problem is that the supply of students is not something you turn on and off quickly. Students pay a lot of attention to who is getting the good jobs, but a senior can’t change his/her major on a whim. The information trickles down to younger students, so it takes a couple of years to see a response. The lag time in the response is clearly illustrated in Fig. 1, which compares the inflation-adjusted oil price with the number of bachelor-level petroleum engineering degrees granted in the U.S.
The U.S. students who graduated after oil prices peaked in 1981 had a difficult time finding jobs. Many of them never received a job offer in the industry. Some students had their job offers rescinded. The image of the petroleum industry took a beating in the process.
Even after layoffs began and only a few students got job offers, an unusually large number of students were graduating as petroleum engineers. Just as students can’t easily change their majors to take advantage of a hot job market, they can’t easily switch to avoid an industry that is downsizing. To change majors, a student may have to prolong his/her education. Many students cannot afford the extra time in college.
Some people think that independent of oil price, companies will be hiring for many years to replace retirees. The answer is not that simple. If companies hired in response to retirements, the skewed age distribution never would have developed. While companies watch their age distributions and complain about them, they hire in response to activity, and activity follows oil price. Even in good times, companies are under relentless pressure to reduce operating expenses. People are a just-in-time commodity, to be acquired as needed.
The advantage of a new employee with a brand-new bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering is that he/she can become functional much faster than someone with a different technical degree. However, to maintain their skills after graduation, everyone must be learning constantly about new technical developments. Facilitating this learning is SPE’s major function. While graduates from another engineering or science discipline may take longer to get started, they can become excellent petroleum engineers. Many of the most distinguished technical professionals in our industry were trained in other disciplines.
In the long run our industry will benefit from having people with a variety of technical backgrounds. People with diverse backgrounds approach problems in different ways, and working together may develop better solutions.
Based on my assessment of past hiring patterns, I don’t recommend large expansions of petroleum engineering degree programs. To supplement the current supply of petroleum engineering students, I prefer to encourage other students to study science and engineering and to consider careers in the petroleum industry. That way if the job market turns before they graduate, we do not have an oversupply of petroleum engineers.
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