Economists say many industries are looking up this year. But perhaps none has a better outlook than the energy sector.
New drilling technologies and rising fuel prices have generated a boom in drilling — and lots of high-paying jobs for people with the skills to work in the oil patch. On some college campuses, companies are so eager to find petroleum engineers that they are offering jobs to students even before they have graduated.
At the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Chris Enger is among the seniors who are being sought out by employers. "I feel very lucky and very glad I chose engineering," he says, "and specifically petroleum engineering."
Set to graduate with a bachelor's degree this May, Enger already has a job lined up with EOG Resources, a Texas-based oil and gas company.
"I've got friends on other campuses who may not have jobs and are considering pursuing a graduate degree, which seems to be a lot of people's options when they can't find a job," he says.
At the School of Mines, graduates in petroleum engineering don't have to run up debt in graduate school. Their average starting salary? Nearly $79,000.
Students are flocking to the field — and to colleges like this one, which has a nearly perfect job-placement rate for graduating seniors.
Professor Bill Eustes teaches a drilling class in which students learn how to design the piping in an oil and gas well to prevent explosions.
A decade ago, there were only 21 students in his class. Today, there are about 160.
"When the [oil] prices climb, we typically see the number of students build also," he says. "Why? Because the jobs are there."
The need for young workers is especially intense now because many of the people who entered the oil business during the 1970s oil boom are retiring. At the same time, new drilling techniques are making it possible to get oil and gas from shale. That new supply is boosting demand for workers.
"If you would have told me 10 years ago that a shale would have been a gas reserve, I would have gone, 'You're crazy.' But they found a way to do it," Eustes says. "So we've got the technology improving; we've got these new reserves opening up; we've got this crew change coming up — all of these things have conspired to require people."
Jessica Lambdin is a recruiter for Encana Corp., which has traditionally been a natural-gas powerhouse. But because natural gas prices are down and oil prices are up, the company is now shifting its focus to recovering so-called unconventional oil.
The reason, she says, is that "we're really innovative, and students have a really strong desire to bring that to a corporation. And that's really important currently, in today's economy."
Encana is one of dozens of companies actively recruiting at the Colorado School of Mines and at similar schools from Texas to Montana. A recent career fair on the campus drew more than half the student body. Companies came back the next day and conducted 1,000 interviews.
Ali Amacki, a junior from Oman, says there's a buzz among his petroleum-engineering classmates. The new technology means the industry is no longer generating just traditional jobs involving oil derricks.
"Easy oil is gone," Amacki says. "People have been producing easy oil for decades now. Now we are the hard oil generation."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Republican candidates and President Obama alike are talking about climbing gas prices. At the same time, some people are gaining from the growing demand for energy. Oil production in the United States has reached its highest levels in years. New technologies have accelerated drilling, which has led to more jobs - so many jobs, that companies struggle to fill them. Some companies are offering jobs to college students before they have even graduated. And so we begin a look at improving parts of the economy with the oil industry.
From member station KUNC, Kirk Siegler starts our series Looking Up.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: These days, you don't hear of a lot of college seniors in Chris Angar's comfortable position.
CHRIS ANGAR: Yeah, I feel very lucky and very glad I chose engineering, and specifically petroleum engineering.
SIEGLER: Set to graduate with a bachelor's degree from the Colorado School of Mines this May, Angar already has a job lined up with EOG Resources, a Texas-based oil and gas company.
ANGAR: I've got friends on other campuses who may not have jobs and are considering pursuing a graduate degree, which seems to be a lot of people's option when they can't find a job.
SIEGLER: The average starting salary for School of Mines grads in petroleum engineering jobs today: $78,000. So it's no surprise that students are flocking to the field - and to college campuses like this one - which has a nearly perfect job placement rate for graduating seniors.
BILL EUSTES: It's Friday morning, time for a train wreck. OK?
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
SIEGLER: In Professor Bill Eustes' drilling class, students are learning how to design the piping in an oil and gas well so that it doesn't explode under pressure.
EUSTES: Do you see a problem with this?
SIEGLER: A decade ago, there were only 21 students in his class. Now there are about 160.
EUSTES: And when the prices climb, we typically see the number of students build also. Why? Because the jobs are there.
SIEGLER: But it's too simplistic to say that's the only reason behind the oil industry's hiring boom. Eustes himself was among a million or so Americans to lose their jobs in the industry in the mid-'80s, when oil prices crashed. Those who were lucky enough to keep their jobs then, are now close to retiring.
That's happening just as advances in technologies are opening up new oil fields from North Dakota to Colorado.
EUSTES: If you would have told me 10 years ago that a shale would have been a gas reserve, I would have gone, you're crazy. But they found a way to do it. The technology's improved. So we've got the technology improving. We've got these new reserves opening up .We've got this crew change coming up. All of these things have conspired to require people.
SIEGLER: People who have been in college during the great recession.
JESSICA LAMBDIN: We find that this generation tends to have a greater ability to adapt and change and move in different directions.
SIEGLER: Jessica Lambdin does college recruiting for Encana Corporation. That ability to adapt is especially important for her company. Encana has traditionally been a natural gas powerhouse. But natural gas prices are low and oil is up. So the company is now completely shifting its focus to so-called unconventional oils.
LAMBDIN: The students really bring something different than a seasoned professional because we're really innovative, and students have a really strong desire to want to bring that to a corporation. And that's really important, currently, in today's economy.
SIEGLER: Encana is one of dozens of companies actively recruiting on the School of Mines campus and similar schools in states from Texas to Montana. A recent career fair here drew more than half of the student body. Companies came back the next day and did 1,000 interviews.
Ali Amacki, a junior from Oman, says there's a buzz among his petroleum engineering classmates. All the new technology means that this isn't your traditional oil-man-in-the-oil-derricks job.
ALI AMACKI: Easy oil is gone. People have been producing easy oil for decades now. Now we are the hard oil generation.
SIEGLER: Coming to the Colorado School of Mines and majoring in petroleum engineering was a no-brainer for Amacki.
AMACKI: This is the center of technology, the U.S. You know, this is where people invent stuff, and I want to work here first, get some experience, teach myself the new skills.
SIEGLER: And those are skills Amacki eventually wants to take back to Oman, because he knows easy oil there won't last much longer, either.
For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler, in Denver.
INSKEEP: And you have more from this series Looking Up at npr.org. This afternoon on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we'll ask what a boom in tech jobs means for the state of Utah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.