For the better part of 30 years, the geographic center of the world’s petroleum industry had been without a fundamental, industry-specific academic program. While no one is exactly sure why the program ceased to exist after the late 1970s, petroleum engineering finally reemerged at the University of Houston in the fall of 2009. The return of this essential program is on the cusp of the industry’s great crew change. This eminent shift in talent within the space of petroleum engineering has companies scrambling to find new technical personnel, and fast. Industry experts are anticipating that 20 percent of the entire industry will have less than five years’ experience as the workforce approaches retirement eligibility in 2015.
In an article published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers titled, Lessons From History: The Value of Competent People, writer J. Ford Brett states that there are 400,000 exploration and production (E&P) professionals (e.g., geologists, geophysicists, engineers) worldwide. This means that there will be roughly 80,000 E&P professionals worldwide with less than five years of experience, in a career field that specializes in “maximizing economic recovery of hydrocarbons.”
The importance of this position and its financial impacts plays a large part in upstream operations. It has also, unfortunately, been drawn into the melee as more and more people become entrenched in the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing. Differences aside, with many baby boomers retiring, the fundamentals of petroleum engineering are vital to the growing industry.
As national production continues to increase, the departure of seasoned petroleum engineers is quickly approaching and the industry players in Houston were quick to acknowledge the deficit of new students at the city’s own University. In 2001, individuals from across the industry came together to form a board that proved to be decisive in reengaging university and state officials about the importance of having a program to supplement the nation’s top petroleum engineering colleges—Texas A&M and the University of Texas, Austin—whose programs were already at capacity.
The board, with the help of Ali Daneshy, who served as the director from 2004 to 2007, created a curriculum that “reflected the opinions of industry experts.” The university finally secured state approval and the first students were admitted to the program by fall of 2009 and graduated in the spring of 2013. While the program is currently housed in the Cullen College of Engineering’s Chemical Engineering Department, the program’s director, Dr. Thomas Holley, expressed his delight about the undergraduate program’s sustained growth and the need to eventually secure its own department.
With roughly 550 students currently enrolled in the undergraduate program, the University of Houston is on track with other universities offering the same program. Holley does not believe that they will grow the undergraduate program any larger but is hoping that the doctoral program will increase to match the swelling numbers they are seeing in the undergraduate and masters programs. With the increase in students, the school is hoping to draw in seven to ten more full-time faculty members in addition to the adjunct faculty members who change with enrollment numbers.
The University of Houston and the petroleum engineering program hit the academic jackpot in 2011 when they hired on their first tenured professor and notable full-time staffer, John Lee, who came to the University from the nation’s top PE school, Texas A&M. Very few can rival Lee whose accolades and experience are nationally if not world renowned. “I’m very glad to be a part of this program. Everything is new. We can build how we think it ought to be built and we know our efforts are very well needed and respected,” said Lee.
Lee reflects much of what the advisory board expresses in regards to illustrating applications that the industry is facing, but stressed that the amount of emphasis on fundamentals versus direct practical applications is crucial to the success of future graduates. His philosophy, while cautious, exemplifies his understanding of the need for quality engineers with proper rudimentary knowledge as they graduate and move out into the field.
In Lessons from History, Brett estimates that neophyte petroleum engineers with less than five years of experience are more likely to make costly mistakes resulting in the loss of billions for the industry. If Brett’s estimates are correct, Lee’s stance on a more rigorous fundamental approach might help to spare the industry in reasonable errors based on novice decisions.
The PE program has its inherent perks by way of its location. With 3,600 energy-related companies in Houston alone, students have access to a host of internships focused on day-to-day issues that face the industry. The majority, if not all, of the students who graduate the four-year program, will get a job directly after graduation. Of the 36,410 employed petroleum engineers nationally, most garner a median wage of $130,280. The high level of responsibility coupled with high salaries continues to make petroleum engineering an attractive career.
With the looming great crew change, colleges and universities across the country that offer PE are seeing enrollment similar to the peak in the 1980s, which some believe is disastrously high. “There are plenty of students to smoothly integrate into positions left vacant by retirees,” said Lee. There are still the inherent risks that left the industry and the profession bottomed out in the 80s. Now however, with increasing demand combined with new policies and regulations, industry experts are better poised to deal with issues that concern them directly. The great crew change is one such concern, placing the University of Houston at the helm to provide new talent each year straight from the center of the petroleum industry.