The Petroleum Industry

by Michael J. Baranovic, Shell


Jobs in the petroleum industry are fun and exciting because they provide people with a chance to "do geology" in a high-technology, high-data environment that isn't found in most other geoscience professional jobs. Even better, many petroleum companies provide generous salary and benefits packages that include annual bonuses, flexible work schedules and company-sponsored training. Petroleum geoscientists gather, process, and analyze seismic data and well data in order to locate drillsites for their companies. During a typical career, people learn to locate three different types of drillsites: exploration drillsites (big scale/high risk), field-development drillsites (medium scale/medium risk) and producing-field drillsites (small scale/lowest risk). Most petroleum industry jobs are based in major cities like Houston and Denver and require some domestic and foreign travel as part of the job assignment.

To get a job with a medium-to-large company you will need a bachelor's degree in geology or geologic engineering from a university that teaches the fundamental principles of geology and a master's degree with a specialty in structural geology, sedimentology, stratigraphy, or geophysics/seismology. Research geoscientists, paleontologists, and geochemistry specialists are also employed but in fewer numbers.

The number of petroleum-industry jobs often fluctuates with the price of a barrel of oil. When oil prices are high, employment opportunities are generally stable or expanding, and when oil prices are low, the industry usually undergoes layoffs. Dealing with the stress of this boom-or-bust employment cycle is the toughest part of choosing a petroleum-industry career.

No matter how you view the ups and downs of the oil business, the employment outlook for new graduates appears to be bright for the foreseeable future. Many companies plan to grow slowly regardless of the price of oil, and they have strategies that include hiring new talent into their maturing workforces. Because statistics show that not enough geoscientists were hired during the 1990s to replace all the employees who will soon begin to retire, it seems likely that the industry's recruiting targets will be stable and might even increase over the next five to 10 years as companies seek to replace retirees. As hiring proceeds in the future, companies will likely prefer students who are globally mobile and willing to work in international locations. Companies will preferentially seek out students with advanced degrees, broad-based training in the fundamental principles of geology, and complementary teamwork and commercial skills developed through summer internships.

Job openings are also currently available for people with three to 15 years of professional experience. These openings occur because many smaller companies are willing to pay a premium in salary and bonuses to people trained by larger companies. Job hopping has always been a part of the petroleum landscape and is likely to remain so into the future.

In summary, the petroleum industry provides well-paid, fun jobs for people who are willing to acquire a master's degree in geoscience. Although it is more enjoyable to be a part of the industry when oil prices are stable and high, geoscience jobs are vital to the industry even when prices are low. Jobs are currently available both for new graduates and experienced professionals, and recruiting is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Baranovic works with Shell Exploration and Production Co. in New Orleans.