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 Seventy CSM students who graduated this spring had either internships or job offers in the industry rescinded because of the oil crash, she said.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.”

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.