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Coverage of energy that moves beyond polarized arguments and emotional debate to explore the points of tension, the tradeoffs and opportunities, and the very human consequences of energy policy, production, use and innovation.Inside Energy is a collaboration of seven public media outlets in the nation's energy epicenter: Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Price Dip, Industry Cuts Leave Petroleum Engineering Students Facing Job Uncertainty

Stephanie Joyce
Wyoming Public Media
In Vladimir Alvarado's petroleum engineering class at the University of Wyoming there are no signs enrollment is shrinking, although job prospects are getting slim.

With six-figure starting salaries for a bachelor's degree and endless optimism about the shale revolution, a petroleum engineering degree seemed like the ticket to a bright and well-paid future. Now that the oil price slide has turned to an oil price slump, the luster is wearing off.

When Evan Lowry first enrolled at the University of Wyoming, his plan was to be a chemical engineer, like his dad, but the oil industry was booming and he quickly changed his mind.

"[I] switched just based off of the outlook for petroleum engineers," he said.

That outlook included not only exceptional compensation, but also near-certainty of finding a job. It was a situation that was driving a shortage of petroleum engineers in regulatory jobs. Governments couldn't compete with the booming industry for talent. At the time, Lowry said he wouldn't consider working for the government.

"As far as the salary goes, it's kind of hard to go with something like that when there are so many other opportunities in the industry," Lowry said.

Now with oil prices at half what they were in June 2014 and companies laying off people, his perspective has changed.

"Currently I'm just applying to any job that's open," he said.

He's also back where he started, enrolling in a chemical engineering master's degree, just in case none of those petroleum engineering jobs pan out. He isn't the only one.

At the Colorado School of Mines, professor Carrie McClelland said plenty of her students are in the same boat. Every fall she invites a guest speaker to her class, and he always opens with a question about how many students have jobs lined up after graduation.

"Usually 75 to 80 percent of the people would raise their hand, but we maybe had 10 or 15 students raise their hand this year," she said.

McClelland adds that some seniors have had offers rescinded and plenty of students are suddenly considering graduate school. Oil prices aren't the only problem; she said there are just too many students pursuing petroleum engineering degrees.

"I think the demand has already leveled off even though the number of students continues to increase, and we're going to see a lot of students that end up with a petroleum engineering degree but have to go find a job in a different industry," she said.

The School of Mines has seen enrollment double since 2010, while the University of Wyoming and the University of North Dakota have seen even larger increases.

"We won't see the impact [of falling oil prices] just yet, simply because there is inertia in the market," said Vladimir Alvarado, head of Wyoming's petroleum engineering department. "It won't stop all of a sudden."

Not that Alvarado wants it to — although he would like to see it slow. Class sizes in recent years have overwhelmed the university's teaching staff and put a huge strain on department resources. In light of that, Alvarado thinks low oil prices may be a good thing.

"It will give us time to catch our breath, and improve the quality of what we do," he said.

What Alvarado doesn't want is a repeat of the 1980s. In the early part of that decade, students also flocked to petroleum engineering programs amid high oil prices, and then cleared out just as suddenly when the industry busted. The University of Wyoming ended up shutting down the entire program — something clearly on Alvarado's mind these days.

"If we are clever, we can sustain healthy activity even with fewer students, even if it goes down like before," he said. "We need to avoid panicking about this and shutting down programs. It is very expensive to restart a program."

Oil prices would have to stay low for years for anyone to seriously talk about shutting things down, but as with many things oil — whether it's a drilling frenzy or an enrollment surge — it may prove difficult to strike a balance between the extremes.

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.

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