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Young engineers looking to get into the energy industry, take heart: The industry is looking for you. Especially out in the production fields, where technology has opened up vast new resources.
So says a June 2012 report prepared for the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's main lobbying arm. "Employment Outlook for African Americans and Latinos in the Upstream Oil and Natural Gas Industry," prepared by IHS Global, the Washington-based research organization, lays it all out.
Executives at the nation's largest energy companies, looking out toward the end of the decade, see a "Big Crew Change" coming. The work force populated by the post-World War II "Baby Boom" generation is fast closing in on retirement, opening up opportunities for a new generation of engineers, technical workers, and semi-skilled "roughnecks" just as a revolution in technology is breaking in unlocking "tight oil" and "tight gas" from deep reservoirs under the sea and under mountainous areas on land.
Tight oil & gas from shale
The Bakken Shale, part of the Williston Basin underneath North Dakota, Montana, and parts of Canada is producing rapidly increasing flows of low-sulfur "light" crude oil. The Eagle Ford shale formation, spread over South Texas and Northern Mexico, continues to blow out analysts' expectations with its own rapidly increasing flows of petroleum, natural gas liquids, and gas. The Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale, underneath Eastern Ohio, West Virginia, across Appalachia from Southwest to Northeast Pennsylvania and into New York State—the world's second-biggest natural gas find—continues to upend world energy markets. Still other "tight oil" and "tight gas" reservoirs add to a flow so mighty the International Energy Agency confidently predicts that within the next two decades, North America will be the "New Middle East."
The API's "Employment Outlook for African Americans and Latinos" projected job growth up to the year 2030 along three development lines:
• New jobs projected to be created under a baseline forecast of the industry's expected growth; • Jobs that will likely be created due to the need to replace workers who retire or otherwise leave the industry over this period; and • Jobs that are projected to be created under a scenario to more accelerated development of U.S. oil and natural gas resources.
Opportunities opening up
Charting "Potential Job Creation in the Upstream Oil and Natural Gas Industry," the API report looked first at baseline growth and replacement requirements, finding nearly 80,000 new jobs likely to open up for minorities, out of 227,000 total industry jobs. If the federal government supports a "pro-development policy," API said, the totals go up; another 86,000-plus jobs for minorities among nearly 300,000 total industry jobs.
Looking forward to 2030, the API report found that 172,000 jobs would open for minorities because of baseline growth and replacement requirements, out of nearly 480,000 total jobs. Under pro-development policies, add another 114,000 minority jobs, for a total of 285,000 potential minority jobs.
That is, API estimates that, under policies promoting accelerated oil and natural gas development, of nearly 300,000 jobs projected to be created by 2020 according to research by the Wood Mackenzie research firm, 29 percent, or 86,000 would be taken by African American and Hispanic workers.
By 2030, the estimate is that more than 113,000 of the new jobs created by pro-development energy policies would go to African American and Hispanic workers, 34 percent of the 331,000 total new jobs.
Breaking it Down
Of those projected new jobs, nearly 50,000 are to be in management, business and financial occupations; nearly 100,000 in professional and related occupations; less than 10,000 in service occupations; just under 10,000 in sales and related occupations; 35,000-40,000 in office and administrative support positions; nearly 190,000 in skilled blue-collar occupations; another 120,000 in semi-skilled blue-collar occupations; and nearly 25,000 in unskilled blue-collar work. That is, the API cautioned, if high-school completion rates improve for Hispanics and if better focus on STEM education comes about in the K-12 schools producing African American and Hispanic graduates.
That's the 30,000-foot view. Here's how it looks on the ground, where a ferocious technology competition is heating up the production fields. CNN Money.com reporter Alanna Petroff put it this way in a story headlined "Engineers get rich as Talent War heats up:”
"Experienced engineers are being offered sky-high salaries and are taking regular calls from headhunters as the booming shale gas industry fights for scarce talent, snapping up engineers from other sectors….It's a simple case of supply and demand: there aren't enough experienced engineers to go around, and global demand for engineers is growing, especially as the U.S. shale gas industry balloons."
Beginners Wanted, too
Even young graduates just leaving their campuses are being eagerly sought, Petroff reported. "Seven of the top-paid college degrees are in engineering, according to a recent report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers."
What happened is that until recently, energy producers looked offshore, to Africa, the Persian Gulf, Southeast Asia, and South America for recoverable reserves, believing that all American reserves were just about played out.
Then that technology revolution changed the game. In a recent report by the Breakthrough Institute, "Where the Shale Gas Revolution Came From," researchers traced the causes to three main factors:
• The development of hydraulic fracturing of porous shale formations, long known to geoscientists but thought by producers to be impossible to open up; • Directional drilling techniques, pioneered in Pennsylvania and West Virginia but first applied commercially in Texas; and • Three-dimensional seismic imaging, developed for the coal-mining industry but adapted by federally funded research to help gas drillers limn the contours of deep-earth shale formations, which are geologically very different from the reservoirs the energy industry used to tap.
A Public-Private Partnership Drive
Consistent government policy and financial support, beginning after the Energy Crisis of the 1970s, catalyzed the development of techniques and technologies to make it possible to tap those deep shales, first in Texas' Barnett Shale, then the Haynesville formation farther north and, in 2007, the Marcellus Shale.
Today, engineers not only use Three-D seismology, they are adapting computer tools to use optical fiber laid down to transmit data from "downhole" devices as a new kind of sensor, providing more exacting reports of seismic information to trace out the rock types, fracture zones and porosity and extent of the geologic formations through which the drilling head passes.
Today, engineers use gamma-ray sensing to steer directional drilling, and two different kinds of hydraulically powered "mud motors" to make the directional turns.
Today, engineers use fluidic data-transmission techniques to relay back up the well bore graphic pictures of the strata through which the drilling head passes.
Many Disciplines can Play
That means not only petroleum engineers are in high demand, but other disciplines as well. It means electrical engineers, computer and control systems engineers, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, structural engineers, architects and architectural technicians, surveyors and many other disciplines are in high demand. Look at this sample of the jobs on offer at the Texas Oil Patch site, http://thetxtoilpatch.jobamatic.com:
Mechanical Design Engineer Coker Specialist; Image Processing Engineer; Senior Process Engineer - Gas Processing & Liquefaction; Engineering - Process/Chemical; Job Title: equipment solutions to Oil & gas, gas processing and the downstream process; Piping Engineer - Oil & Gas; Business Title Piping Engineer - Oil/Gas; Control Systems Engineer/Specialist; Reliability Engineer/Specialist for a refinery; Aspen Basic Engineering Process Engineering Specialist Job; Human Factors Engineering Job; R&D Engineering Specialist - Metallic Materials; Image Processing Engineer; Engineering Specialist in Energy Simulation. . . .
Lessons learned, progress pursued
Oil drillers watched the success of the late George Mitchell in opening up the Barnett Shale to commercial production, after decades of searching for the right technology, and applied similar techniques in the Bakken formation in North Dakota. Others applied those lessons learned to begin producing record quantities of crude oil and natural gas liquids from the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas. Still others put the new seismic imaging, drilling and hydraulic fracturing skills to work in Texas' Permian Basin, producing yet another boom, and still another in Colorado's Niobrara Shale.
Colorado School of Mines drilling professor Bill Eustes, a former energy production worker who lost his industry job during the mid-1980s when oil prices crashed, said in a story by KUNC news reporter Kirk Siegler that today's high prices of oil, coupled with the technology revolution, is driving the demand for new engineers.
"We've got the technology improving, we've got these new reserves opening up, and we’ve got this crew change coming up. All these things have conspired to require people."
Jessica Lambdin, Rocky Mountain area college recruiter for Encana Corporation, added that, "We find that this generation tends to have a greater ability to adapt and change and move in different directions." That works for her company, which is shifting its focus from natural gas to so-called unconventional oil because the price of gas is artificially low, but oil prices are high.
That API study found the greatest growth is expected in the Northeast, because of the Marcellus and Utica Shale formations' bountiful output, and in the Gulf Coast region, because of the Eagle Ford. That's good news for HBCU graduates, whose institutions fall in an arc from the Mid-Atlantic States to the Gulf Coast. From oil and gas recovery to hydrocarbon processing to the design and construction of transportation facilities—rail as well as pipelines, river barge as well as ocean-gong vessels—to environmental remediation, many skill sets are in demand. Now's the time to chart that course.
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