Oil companies scramble to find engineers

So much for sweating out that first job after college.

Like star athletes, engineering students Julie Arsenault and Emily Reasor are prized prospects for the energy industry, which is experiencing dizzying demand for engineers.

Bustling oilfield activity and retiring baby boomers, among other factors, have petroleum outfits large and small trying to hire thousands of engineers, and experts say the trend is expected to extend into the next decade as worldwide energy demand grows.

"I've talked to quite a few of my peers, and we know we're in a good spot," Cornell University's Reasor said as she and Arsenault, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took part in a week-long recruitment program sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell's U.S. arm. "It's nice to know we're needed."

Management consulting firm Oliver Wyman says roughly eight in 10 global oil and gas companies forecast a shortage of petroleum engineers through at least 2011. The American Petroleum Institute said U.S. energy companies will need at least another 5,000 engineers by decade's end.

In Houston, home to scores of exploration, engineering and services companies, simply check the classified ads: Row upon row of job listings for engineers at ConocoPhillips, Marathon Oil Corp. and numerous others.

Petroleum engineers evaluate potential oil and gas reservoirs, work with geologists and other specialists to understand rock formations, determine drilling methods and then monitor drilling and recovery operations. One of their big tasks is to design methods that achieve maximum recovery of oil and gas.

"I can assure you, it's tight from a supply standpoint, hot from a demand standpoint and lucrative from a job searcher's standpoint," said Cary Wilkins, who leads Shell's recruitment efforts in the U.S. and Canada.

No one in the industry appears to be panicking, but executives acknowledge the hiring challenge and some say it could impede investment in new oilfield projects.

David Pursell, an analyst with Tudor Pickering & Co. Securities Inc., said it's difficult to quantify what a hardship the shortage will be, but it's certainly a consideration when a company considers buying an existing project or starting one anew.

"The first question from senior management is: OK, we've got the asset. Who's going to work on it?" Pursell said. "What you end up doing is stretching your people. You prioritize. So it's not all bad. It forces you to work on your best, most important projects."

Fossil fuels — despite efforts to find and market alternative fuels — will continue to be the world's primary energy source for the foreseeable future, making petroleum and other engineers vital for finding and extracting oil and natural gas from all around the world.

And demand is only going to grow.

The shortage of engineers has been caused in part by the upsurge in exploration and a wave of retirements from baby boomers who have spent 25 to 30 years on the job.

API says low college enrollment in petroleum engineering and other majors that support the oil and gas business also is to blame — in part because of the industry's reputation as an unreliable employer.

After U.S. oilfield employment peaked at 860,000-plus in 1982, companies slashed more than 500,000 jobs over the next 18 years as oil prices per barrel plummeted to the low teens — compared with prices hovering around $70 a barrel today.

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