Drawn by a booming job market and high starting salaries, more Kansas University students are opting to enter the petroleum engineering field.
From 2006 to 2010, petroleum engineering was one of KU’s smallest degree programs, awarding an average of 4.4 bachelor’s degrees per year. But this spring, the program awarded bachelor’s degrees to 13 students.
And Russell Ostermann, associate chairman of chemical and petroleum engineering, said more than 35 freshmen were enrolled in beginning courses this year.
“It’s grown a lot,” he said.
A 2011 CNBC report listed petroleum engineering as the major with the top starting salary, with graduates expected to earn an average of $80,849. Ostermann said that’s gone up in 2012, and students can expect to earn $89,000 per year or more with a bachelor’s degree.
Aaron Donat, a recent graduate of the program from Fairbanks, Alaska, said that while money wasn’t the sole factor behind his decision to enter the field, he acknowledged it helped make the decision easier.
“You’re definitely going to get your student loans paid off,” he said.
Donat, like most of his classmates, had a job secured by December. He’ll be headed to Siberia to work as a drilling engineer for the oil field services company Schlumberger.
He said he had three or four job offers even before he officially graduated.
“The services companies are hiring like crazy,” he said about the companies that contract with major oil companies to drill wells and provide other services.
Paul Willhite, a distinguished professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, said several factors were contributing to the hiring boom.
“One is the oil price is at historic levels, and it’s unlikely to go down much in the future,” he said. “In my view, the era of cheap oil has passed.”
He said the demand for workers in the field has always grown and shrunk with the price of oil.
A second factor is a large number of 55- to 60-year-olds working in the field and preparing to retire, creating a need for more workers.
He tells students that when they leave KU, they’ll in all likelihood be among the top 10 percent of all the single-person households in the U.S. But that shouldn’t be the sole driver, he said.
If they don’t like what they’re doing, he tells them, it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to pay them enough to keep going.
Danish Tarar, a 2012 KU graduate from Pakistan who completed the program, said he’ll be staying in Kansas to work as a reservoir engineer for Berexco in Wichita.
He said the high salaries go along with high responsibility, but he’s ready to accept that.
He had two job offers but chose the one that would give him more responsibility and exposure to new things.
“I was really interested in petroleum engineering just as a field in itself,” he said. “Right out of high school I knew what I wanted to do.”