Oil boom spurs a rush on extractive education programs

  • Jon Lindvig, "Little Jon," still sporting the logo of his alma mater, UND Geology & Geological Engineering, on his jacket, at his new job in Tioga, North Dakota.

  • UND geological engineering grad student Russell Carr examines an X-ray fluorescence scanner, one of several new high-priced instruments purchased with the school's windfall from the state and benefactor Harold Hamm.

    Jeremy Miller
  • Oklahoma oil billionaire Harold Hamm, left, receives congratulations from University of North Dakota President Robert Kelley after Hamm's $10 million donation -- and the naming of the Harold Hamm School of Geology and Geological Engineering.

    UND photos by Jackie Lorentz and Shawna Widdel

Last May, Russell Carr crammed his possessions into his 4Runner and drove 30 hours to North Dakota, seeking a new start.

The strapping 22-year-old had just earned a degree in civil engineering at the University of Nevada, in his hometown, Reno, but the local firm he'd been courting offered a starting wage of only $17 per hour. "They gave me a speech about the economy being difficult. I felt undervalued."

Carr wanted to stay, but jobs were scarce. He began working nights on a road crew, collecting heavy concrete samples under halogen lamps at the outskirts of town for later lab testing. On a whim, he submitted an application for a master's through University of North Dakota's geological engineering program.

Assistant UND professor Lance Yarbrough called him back. "He told me about all the opportunities," says Carr, the new high-paying jobs on the oil-soaked prairie. In a few weeks, Carr headed north.

In November, the International Energy Agency predicted that by 2020, the U.S. will become the world's largest producer of crude oil, thanks mostly to the Bakken shale in western North Dakota's Williston Basin, along with advances in drilling techniques that allow oil to be siphoned from hard-to-reach deposits.

This energy rush -- also in the Northeast's Marcellus shale and Colorado and Wyoming's Niobrara shale, among others -- has flooded classrooms with new students. According to the American Society for Engineering Education, between 2002 and 2011, undergraduate enrollment in petroleum engineering increased nearly 250 percent, from 1,491 to 5,102. The number of master's degrees conferred also more than doubled, from 181 to 382. (Though other engineering fields have many more students, none has seen so sharp a rise.) The influx comes at a critical time for industry: A recent survey from oil field services giant Schlumberger predicts that over 20,000 senior geoscientists and engineers will leave the industry by 2015. Meanwhile, a bachelor's in petroleum engineering brings an average starting salary of just over $80,000 per year -- the single most "profitable" U.S. undergraduate degree, according to Forbes.

So-called oil technology programs at state and community colleges and private technical schools -- offering associate degrees and certificates in rig operation, well servicing and other fields -- are filling up, too.

The stream of students has drawn a surge of industry and federal funding. In September, Schlumberger gave the South Dakota School of Mines geology department $49 million to integrate the company's oil exploration software into its curriculum. (A month earlier, Schlumberger awarded the University of Arizona a similar $12 million grant.) The University of Wyoming is constructing a sleek energy engineering building with $25 million in industry and public funds, while the Colorado School of Mines just opened a $25 million petroleum engineering building funded by a who's who of petrochemical companies, including ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Hess and Encana.

In Farmington, N.M., BP and the Merrion Oil and Gas Foundation gave San Juan College $5 million to build an oil-training facility. Last January, the Colorado Online Energy Training Consortium, a coalition of 15 community colleges and private companies, received a $2 million Department of Labor grant to expand gas and oil programs, bolstering the agency's 2011 $17 million investment in improving energy training. Utah's Uintah Basin Applied Technology College is now an "energy academy," and its Vernal and Roosevelt programs have largely replaced on-the-job training for companies  such as Halliburton and Newfield Exploration.

To understand the impacts of this infusion of students and cash, I set out to visit the University of North Dakota and Williston State College.

High Country News Classifieds