Graduating petroleum engineering seniors face obstacles amid oil slump

Cassandra Jaramillo

When they entered college, many UT petroleum engineering students believed they’d graduate with job offers of nearly six-figure salaries — but as the oil market crashed, employment opportunities did, too.

As freshman petroleum engineering students started school in August 2012, the price of crude oil per barrel was nearly $90, according to crude oil indexes. Meanwhile, Texas universities saw enrollment in petroleum engineering dramatically increase over the next four years. Today, the price of crude oil hovers at $40 per barrel, and the students, now seniors, have found themselves competing for the same, limited opportunities.  

Petroleum engineering senior Anna Boyer wanted to start the year with a competitive résumé, but after Swift Energy Company rescinded an internship last year, she was devastated.

“They called me and basically said due to market conditions, they were unable to offer their internship program,” Boyer said. “It was disappointing because at that point I felt I wasn’t going to be working in the energy industry.” 

Boyer and her roommate had plans to move to Houston and work together at Swift, but after the offers were retracted, there weren’t many options left. 

“By that point, every other company wasn’t really hiring interns,” Boyer said.  

Petroleum and geosystems engineering chair Jon Olson took helm of the department in January 2015 — just as the oil market was shocked with falling prices. 

“Prior to the drop in oil prices, we were probably at one of the best times ever for hiring, with nice salaries and opportunities for our students,” Olson said. “Petroleum engineering is the highest paying engineering [bachelor’s] degree at UT, so they were at the top. But then, with the drop in price, we have gone from peak times to significant number of layoffs, significant reduction in capital expenditures, so it’s a pretty challenging time for our graduating seniors.” 

Olson said it was common for recruiters to seek students, but now graduating seniors have more of a responsibility to network with alums. He said many students are pursuing non-traditional routes to find jobs.

After spending four years on active duty in the military, geosystems engineering and hydrogeology senior Juan Abreu said he enrolled in the program because it provided the best opportunities.

Abreu said the challenging course material affected his grades, and he found the competition fierce given market conditions. He has a full résumé, but after seeing the market turn downhill, he decided to choose a career as a natural resources consultant with Accenture.

“I’ll still be using my degree by solving problems related to oil, gas and water,” Abreu said.

Abreu said he sympathizes with fellow classmates struggling in the job search. 

“It kinda sucks because people expected that if you go to the best school, then you’ll get a job, but it’s humbling as well because we all have to fight for a job after graduation,” Abreu said.   

Petroleum engineering senior Mark Perez received a job offer as a field engineer after interning with Chesapeake Energy Corporation. He said he recognizes he is one of a few students with offers but admits he was nervous about losing it. 

“It was definitely nerve-racking, but the company was transparent about the status of my offer and kept in contact with me,” Perez said. 

Boyer, who now plans to pursue a career in energy law, said she is making the switch to insulate herself from market effects. 

“It’s easy to forget that the petroleum is very cyclical,” Boyer said. “As soon as the price goes back up, everyone wants to jump on that, so when there’s a downturn, we just have to prepare for that.”