Engineering schools pivot to meet new oil and gas industry demands


Like all industries, the oil and gas industry is looking for workers in all fields.

That goes for engineers, said Mike Stice, dean of 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 demand. He predicted that there will be a period when there will not be supply to meet demand.

The school, like other engineering colleges across the country, has seen declining enrollment, he said during a visit to Midland this week. He was with Ken Waits, chairman and chief executive of Mewbourne Oil, to meet alumni and local businesses to discuss his school and its offering. Mewbourne’s founder, Curtis Mewbourne, is a long-time supporter of the university, and the College of Earth and Energy, as well as the School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering, bear his name in recognition of this support.

Stice said college enrollment at the school has fallen from 1,400 to 377 currently, with 80 expected to graduate.

“The real problem we’ve had throughout our careers is the cyclical nature of the industry,” he said, explaining a problem that impacts the ability to attract students to engineering. Students worry about whether they will have a job when they graduate, he explained, and when that job is not available, they will choose other careers.

Another challenge is the public perception of fossil fuels. Stice said even his kids were getting 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 advances in technology. Technology has advanced to the point that “the impermeable rock has been made permeable”, ensuring abundant energy supplies. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put another exclamation mark on the issue by underscoring the need for reliability, he said.

“Reliability is a parallel need – we have to be climate friendly, make energy sources environmentally friendly, but it will also be there when we need it,” 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 university is taking inspiration from current trends, including teaching ESG – Environment, Social and Governance certification. The school is also inspired by the evolution of technology that has transformed the energy industry by introducing a new program called Geoenergy.

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

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

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

The program has just launched, so he said it will take four years before results are visible.

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

“I predict another upward cycle,” he said. “I also expect us to advance technology to expand fossil fuels, for carbon sequestration and to produce low-carbon fuels.”

There is no doubt, he said, that the next wave of engineers will be tasked with helping industry increase its respect for the environment and continue to tackle emissions.

Stice said he believes in climate science and that the climate is, in part, affected by human activity. But, he said, he is neither alarmist nor catastrophist. Instead, he believes humanity will rise to the challenge – as it has done in the past – through innovation and creativity.

The industry has made huge strides in reducing its impact on the environment, but still has 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 that there is no better time to step onto the pitch,” he said.


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