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Colorado Oil Boom Fuels Demand for Engineers

The Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo, has a nearly perfect employment rate for students graduating in petroleum engineering.
Kirk Siegler
The Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo, has a nearly perfect employment rate for students graduating in petroleum engineering.

New technology around hydraulic fracturing is leading to an oil drilling boom in states like Colorado – where companies are eager to develop the Niobrara shale formation along the Front Range.

That means there are a growing number of jobs available in the oil patch, but not enough qualified applicants to fill them.

Feeling Lucky

On the campus of the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, companies are so eager to find petroleum engineers they’re offering jobs to students, like senior Chris Enger, before they’ve even graduated.

“I feel very lucky and very glad I chose engineering and specifically petroleum engineering,” Enger said.

Set to graduate with a bachelor’s degree this May, Enger already has a job lined up with EOG Resources, a Texas-based oil and gas company. He feels lucky.

“I’ve got friends on other campuses who may not have jobs and are considering pursuing a graduate degree which seems to be a lot of people’s options when they can’t find a job,” Enger said.

The average starting salary for School of Mines grads in petroleum engineering jobs today is $78,000. So it’s no surprise that students are flocking to the field, and to college campuses like this, which has a nearly perfect job-placement rate for graduating seniors.

Crew Change

In professor Bill Eustes’s drilling class, students are learning how to design the piping in an oil and gas well so that it doesn’t explode under pressure.

A decade ago there were only 21 students in his class. Now there are about 160.

“When the prices climb, we typically see the number of students build also,” Eustes said. “Why? Because the jobs are there.”

But it’s too simplistic to say that’s the only reason behind the oil industry’s hiring boom. Eustes himself was among a million or so Americans to lose their jobs in the industry in the mid-80s, when oil prices crashed. Those who were lucky enough to keep their jobs then, are now close to retiring. That’s happening just as advances in technologies are opening up new oil fields from North Dakota to Colorado.

“We’ve got the technology improving, we’ve got these new reserves opening up, we’ve got this crew change coming up,” Eustes said. “All of these things have conspired to require people.”

People, who have been in college during the great recession.

"We find that this generation tends to have a greater ability to adapt and change and move in different directions," said Jessica Lambdin, who does college recruiting for Encana Corporation in the Rocky Mountain region.

That ability to adapt is especially important for her company. Encana has traditionally been a natural gas powerhouse.

But natural gas prices are low, and oil is up. The company is now completely shifting its focus to so-called unconventional oil.

"The students really bring something different than a seasoned professional," Lambdin said. "Because we're really innovative and students have a really strong desire to bring that to a corporation and that's really important currently in today's economy."

Encana is one of dozens of companies actively recruiting on the School of Mines campus - and similar schools in states from Texas to Montana. A recent career fair here drew more than half of the student body. Companies came back the next day and did 1,000 interviews.

The "Hard Oil" Generation

Ali Amacki, a junior from the Middle East nation of Oman, said there's a buzz among his petroleum engineering classmates. All the new technology means that this isn't your traditional oil man in the oil derricks job.

"Easy oil is gone," Amacki said. "People have been producing easy oil for decades now, we are the hard oil generation."

Coming to the Colorado School of Mines and majoring in petroleum engineering was a no-brainer for Amacki.

"This is the center of technology, the US, this is where people invent stuff," he said. "I want to work here first to get some experience, teach myself the new skills of petroleum engineering."

And those are skills Amacki eventually wants to take back to Oman, because he knows easy oil there won't last much longer either.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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