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Press Graphic by Meghan Dowhaniuk. Data courtesy Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study "What's it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors."

Petroleum engineering degree a hot ticket, but women still lag

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Petroleum engineering degree a hot ticket, but women still lag
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The demand for oil industry talent has made petroleum engineering the most valuable degree in America.

Women, however, still lag behind, according to new data.


Those who majored in petroleum engineering and are full-time workers made a median salary of $120,000 — the highest of the 171 majors studied. But when divided by gender, the value of petroleum engineering plummets for women, who make up a single-digit percentage of the field, study co-author and Georgetown University research professor Anthony Carnevale said.

The University of North Dakota, the only college in the state with a petroleum engineering undergraduate program, has seen the relatively new department surge from less than 10 students in 2010 to more than 200 today, department chair Steve Benson said.

Benson wasn’t shocked by the study’s findings.

“I guess I’m not surprised based on the need,” he said. “There’s a significant demand and that demand is probably gonna be there for a while.”

Montana Tech’s petroleum engineering program has grown by about 10 percent each of the past six years, and now has more than 400 students, said Leo Heath, the department head.

Nationwide, Heath said only 21 colleges offer an undergraduate petroleum engineering program, with three of those starting in the past five years. He said a struggle in starting such a program is finding the specialized faculty to run the major.

The University of Wyoming and the Colorado School of Mines also have the major.

Carnevale and his colleagues used Census data made available in 2011, after the survey began asking Americans what sort of education they have, including their degree.

Based on the young age of those making big bucks in petroleum engineering, the data show that the degree’s value has gone up substantially since the ’90s, Carnevale said.

A different story for women

At Montana Tech, women are only 10 percent of the growing petroleum engineering student base.

At UND, they make up only 6 percent.

Benson said the department is working to fix this, with women from the department working to recruit others.

“We really want to encourage women to enroll in the program,” he said. “I think across the country they’re trying to increase the enrollment of women into petroleum engineering.”

Nina Patel, international chair for IEEE Women in Engineering, said the root of the problem is a lack of a pipeline to get young girls interested in engineering early in life, especially for a relatively new field like petroleum engineering.

She said women in engineering also can face subtle discrimination, like being looked at as less tough than a man, which can drive them out of the field.

Carnevale said women penetrate male-dominated fields “remarkably slowly.”

In software engineering, for example, women made up just 1 percent of workers two decades ago and are now on track for 15 percent.

“One of the most striking patterns in education is gender,” he said, because women get more education in terms of time and degrees, but men tend to get jobs that pay them more.

Heath said some oil and gas companies, especially the big ones, seek out women to meet diversity objectives. For some companies, there’s not enough talent to fill the ranks, regardless of gender.

Heath has talked to companies that are hiring out of other fields, like mechanical and chemical engineering, and training the workers in petroleum engineering on the job.

“I know more and more companies are doing that to meet their needs,” he said, “and if they had more petroleum engineers that are graduating that they would probably prefer to hire them.”

Looking forward

Carnevale uses fast food to explain the economics of wages.

“If you go to McDonald’s, there are a lot of people with low skills that can do those jobs,” he said, “so the wages are relatively low.”

Not so for petroleum engineering.

With the scarcity of skilled workers in the field, the high salaries are because a petroleum engineering degree is a hot ticket right now — but it won’t be forever.

As schools churn out more petroleum engineers, the degree could become less valuable. But the degree’s boom isn’t ending anytime soon.

“The biggest challenge in the future is to meet the demands for not only the number of graduates but also to meet the talent gap,” Benson said.

With the economy as global as it is now, and with big countries hungry for oil, Heath said he thinks the demand for energy — including petroleum engineers — could continue for a while.

Heath said the interest in the major at Montana Tech has been from the big salaries but also from students’ interest in what’s going on around them.

“They see the activity,” he said, “and they think, ‘Gee, I could be a part of that.’”

Katherine Lymn
(701) 456-1211