Big Oil gushes to recruit new college grads

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – University of Texas senior Thuan Phan switched majors from computer science to geological sciences, figuring the field trips would make it more fun. Now his degree turns out to be lucrative, too.

“Big Oil” has been doing some big recruiting on U.S. campuses this year – as have many smaller companies in the petroleum and natural gas business. The combination of high prices, an aging work force and a tight pipeline of trained workers has the industry desperate for talent. Phan accepted a $55,000-per-year offer in Houston at Schlumberger Ltd., an oilfield services firm.

“The pay’s really good, and it’s just exciting,” says Phan, who may pursue a master’s degree while he works.

For job-hunters, 2006 is a good time to graduate from college. The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ most recent survey found companies planning 14.5 percent more on-campus hiring this year; a recent salary survey showed offers up significantly across a range of fields.

But it’s a particularly good time for petroleum engineers and geologists – fields that were so slow in recent years some university departments closed. Offers made last fall to undergraduate petroleum engineers averaged $62,236, up more than 6 percent, and the highest of any categories in NACE’s survey (geologists’ starting salaries are generally somewhat lower).

Prominent geoscience programs, including those at Texas, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Colorado School of Mines, are reporting more companies interviewing on campus. William Fisher, dean of UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences, saw something this year he’d never seen before: a student got a signing bonus – for a summer internship.

“My guess is the demand for geoscientists is roughly twice the supply,” Fisher says.

Adds Maria Zuber, department chair of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at MIT: “I have high-level people oil companies who are in my office frequently saying, ‘Send me more students.’ We can’t keep up with the demand of what the oil companies need.”

Three major factors are at work:

– Prices. Oil around $70 per barrel provides incentive and funding to look for more of it. But most of the easy-to-reach oil has already been tapped, and finding what’s left requires advanced technology and expertise.

“If you go back to the old ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ show, you dig a hole in the ground and oil pops up. Those days are gone,” says Paul Poley, vice president of human resources at Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy Corp. If Devon is going to spend $60 million for a rig to drill through the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, it wants to hear from smart people that an oil strike is likely. Devon hires mostly from its intern class, which will be about 170 this summer, 17 times larger than three years ago. “We recruit as many as we can possibly handle,” Poley says.

– Demographics. During the oil bust of the 1980s, the industry stopped hiring. Now, workers’ average age is 49. Big companies like Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC predict that half of their work force 10 years from now has yet to be recruited, says Christopher Keane, director of communications and technology at the American Geological Institute.

– Too few students. Interest in the geosciences varies with the market, but takes time to adjust. Total U.S. geoscience degrees approached 10,000 annually in the early 1980s, then crashed to about one-third that by 1991. Last year, about 2,400 undergraduate and 1,500 graduate degrees were granted.

At Texas, undergraduate enrollment was once as low as 110 students but now it’s growing modestly, with about 200 in the department. Still, demand is growing faster. Good students, Fisher said, have as many job offers as interviews.

There is solid interest from big companies such as BP PLC (hiring 235 full-timers from American campuses this year, up from 163 last year), but also mid-sized ones like Devon and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. Some students are going to even smaller specialty exploration firms that may pay more while offering less long-term job security.

In geoscience, a master’s degree is still the entry ticket for many jobs. But experts say companies are becoming more flexible about hiring and training undergraduates. They will have to. Keane says the industry will need up to 30,000 more experts over the next decade, but at current rates, U.S. universities will produce only half that many graduate degrees.

“Big Oil” isn’t the only place to go with a geoscience degree. Kim Nguyen, a senior hydrology major at Texas, said she didn’t pursue oil company jobs for ethical reasons, but found work with an environmental consulting firm. Matt McDonald, a master’s student in geophysics, said he “was kind of blown away by all the offers” from the oil industry. Still, for now at least, he turned Shell to pursue a doctorate, which would leave open an academic career.

Nguyen said two older sisters who studied business and engineering questioned her choice of field a few years ago. But the engineer later discovered that many of the companies she was targeting were looking for geologists.

“It’s kind of cool to be in demand,” Nguyen said, “when everyone had doubts.”

AP-ES-04-11-06 1655EDT

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