Breaking News

Engineering schools pivoting to meet new demands of oil and gas industry

Like industries across the board, the oil and gas industry is looking for workers in all aspects.

That goes for engineers, said Mike Stice, dean of the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy at the University of Oklahoma. He said he gets requests from companies for 25 engineers and he doesn’t have the graduates to meet the request. He predicted there will be a period where there won’t be the supply to meet the demand.

The school, like other engineering schools around the country, has seen a drop in enrollment, he said during a visit to Midland this week. He was with Ken Waits, president and chief executive officer of Mewbourne Oil, to meet with local alumni and businesses to discuss his school and its offering. Mewbourne founder Curtis Mewbourne has long supported the university and the College of Earth and Energy, along with the School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering, bear his name in recognition of that support.

Stice said enrollment in the school’s college had fallen from 1,400 to a current 377, with 80 set to graduate.

“The real issue we’ve had our entire careers is the cyclical nature of the industry,” he said, explaining one issue impacting the ability to attract students to engineering. Students worry if they will have a job when they graduate, he explained, and when that job isn’t available, they’ll choose alternate careers.

Another challenge is the public perception of fossil fuels. Stice said even his children get negative feedback from their instructors.

The answer is education, he said, and his college is doing outreach to change the dialogue.

Two things are working in the industry’s favor, he continued, one being technological advances. Technology has advanced to the point that “impermeable rock has been made permeable,” ensuring plentiful energy supplies. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put another exclamation point on the issue by highlighting the need for reliability, he said.

“Reliability is a parallel need – we need to respect the climate, make energy sources environmentally friendly but that will also be there when we need them,” he said.

A third challenge is that young people coming out of high school and college have so many more choices, he said.

Stice said his college is taking a cue from current trends, among them teaching ESG – Environment, Social and Governance – certification. The school is also taking a cue from the evolution of technology that has transformed the energy industry by introducing a new curriculum called Geoenergy.

“As we study the needs of the industry, we found we needed to pivot and develop a new petroleum engineer,” he said. 

The new geoenergy curriculum will be one-third petroleum engineering, one-third geology and one-third machine learning, artificial intelligence and data management.

“We will make the engineer of the future,” Stice said.

The program just launched, so he said it will be four years before results are seen.

He is confident there will be demand for the school’s graduates because fossil fuels are here to stay, he said. He cited expectations fossil fuels will still be providing 50 percent of the world’s energy in 2040.

“I am predicting another upcycle,” he said. “I also expect we will evolve the technology to extend fossil fuels, for carbon sequestration and to produce low carbon fuels.”

There is no doubt, he said, the next wave of engineers will be tasked with helping the industry increase its environmental friendliness and continue to address emissions.

Stice said he believes in climate science and that the climate is, in part, being impacted by human activity. But, he said, he is not an alarmist or catastrophist. Instead, he believes mankind will rise to address the challenge – as has been done in the past – through innovation and creativity.

The industry has made tremendous progress in addressing its environmental impact, yet still has more work to do – and is doing that work, he said. The industry can and should be proud of its work, he added.

He is excited to educate the next wave of engineers, he said.

“My message is there isn’t a better time to enter the field,” he said.