Ariana Forsythe first got interested in engineering in middle school, during a segment on renewable energy. The possibilities fascinated her; there were so many ways to produce electricity. When she set off for college, at the University of Texas in her hometown of Austin, she knew she wanted to study mechanical engineering.
But in her first few semesters, she felt bombarded by a narrower message: one focused on, and sometimes even delivered by, the fossil fuel industry.
“I almost switched out of the major because I was exposed to so much recruitment from oil and gas companies,” Forsythe said. “But people in my generation are just increasingly firm in the science that we need to reduce carbon emissions, and they don’t want to contribute to them. I have conversations all the time with friends who agree that they’d rather not work for an oil and gas company even if there were lots of jobs.”
Forsythe believes that the fossil fuel industry, once a choice career path for engineers, is increasingly unpopular as a job destination for young people in the US. And there’s a growing pile of evidence to support that view. A Pew survey in April found that 78% of US millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) believe in supporting alternative forms of energy over fossil fuels, compared to 53% of Baby Boomers. And a 2017 Ernst & Young survey of 1,200 young Americans found that two-thirds of teenagers believe the oil and gas industry “causes problems rather than solves them,” and that 44% of millennials aged 20-35 found a career in the industry “unappealing.”
That’s despite highly competitive compensation: The average salary for a petroleum engineer is around $180,000, although that figure fluctuates with the oil price; for a wind turbine technician, by comparison, it’s $52,910.
For Forsythe, who’s on track to graduate next year and plans to look for work designing energy-efficient buildings, climate change is the top reason to avoid a fossil fuel job. But the Ernst & Young survey cited another big turn-off for young people: Oil market volatility and the ever-looming possibility of busts and layoffs. If that’s true, then the coronavirus pandemic could have a long-lasting impact on the industry’s ability to recruit smart young people.
Thanks to the pandemic, the oil and gas industry is in a period of unprecedented contraction. In Forsythe’s home state, crashing oil prices have led companies to slash tens of thousands of jobs in the last few months. Globally, industry job losses could reach above 1 million this year, according to Oslo-based research firm Rystad Energy. Those kinds of statistics tend to scare students away from oil and gas, said Nikki Kantelis, a professor of energy commerce at Texas Tech University.
“It is more difficult to recruit young graduates to the oil and gas industry than it might have been when I first started in the industry,” she said, which was “back when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth.”
“Some students shy away from the industry because they don’t want to be vulnerable to the cyclical nature of commodity markets,” said Kantelis. “If you look at energy programs around the country, many of them are more focused on renewables or policy.”
Data compiled by Lloyd Heinze, who coordinates the undergraduate petroleum engineering major at Texas Tech, show that oil busts lead many students to bail on a career in the industry. The number of students enrolled as petroleum engineering majors in US universities closely tracks the price of oil, he has found. The change in enrollment lags the oil price by a couple years: In the wake of a price crash, students who are already close to graduation are less likely to pivot, whereas freshmen or sophomores may drop out, or never sign up at all.
In 2015, for example, just after the US fracking boom drove the price of oil above $100 a barrel, the number of petroleum engineering students reached 12,400, the highest level on record, according to Heinze. After the bust that followed, the number of students tumbled to just 4,619 this spring.
“Students are astute about their job prospects,” said Heinze. “It’s not so much that they’re watching the oil price, as how many of their friends who are seniors are getting jobs.”
On that front, the outlook is grim. Many oil companies have cancelled their summer job and internship programs, which are typically relatively lucrative and designed to entice students to stick with the industry after graduation, said Wendy Winter-Searcy, director of the career center at the Colorado School of Mines. Seventy CSM students who graduated this spring had either internships or job offers in the industry rescinded because of the oil crash, she said.
One CSM grad who managed to keep his job offer was Jason Zobott, who is starting work as an operations engineer at the Denver-based oil and gas company Ovintiv. Zobott said he gravitated to a petroleum engineering major because it seemed like a good way to combine his interests in mechanics and finance. “What drew me the most was getting to dive into the business side of the operation,” he said. “Even at the entry level you get a lot of discretion about spending money.”
TTU’s Kantelis said the school has tried to pique students’ interest by fighting the perception that oil and gas jobs are limited to working on a drilling rig, and emphasizing business and information technology skills that are more cutting edge and widely applicable. “An understanding of markets, buying and selling commodities, transportation and scheduling is what we want for our students,” she said. “These skills are not only useful in the energy industry, but in many other industries.”
Oil companies that are more progressive about diversifying into clean energy and embracing ambitious climate goals may have an easier time pitching themselves as places where young people can reshape the industry from the inside, said Ben Ratner, a senior director for oil and gas at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Companies are worried about access to talent,” he said. “But if a company chooses to remain a traditional oil and gas producer, period, there’s a limitation to what they can do in creating innovative job opportunities.”
Ultimately, some young engineers and scientists may just feel that they want to play a more active role in saving the climate than work in even the most progressive oil company would allow. Will Hoover is a geologic chemist one year away from finishing his PhD at the University of Maryland. He studies the movement of water deep underground, and is open to jobs in academia, consulting, government agencies, almost anything. The only option off the table is fossil fuels.
“It’s hard for me to see how I could make any sort of structural change,” he said. “When it comes down to it, my responsibility is to tell them about the rocks, and decisions about what gets done are made far above my pay grade. My only recourse is to say, ‘Do the right thing or I’ll leave.’ The stronger statement is to say I won’t even entertain this possibility.”