Originally created 04/12/06

Oil companies hire on campus



AUSTIN, Texas - 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. Mr. 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 Mr. Phan, who might 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.

Three major factors are at work:

- Prices. Oil about $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.

- Demographics. During the oil bust of the 1980s, the industry stopped hiring. Now, workers' average age is 49.

- 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 of that by 1991. Last year, about 2,400 undergraduate and 1,500 graduate degrees were granted.

"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.