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College to Launch New Petroleum Engineering Undergraduate Degree

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By: 

Erin D. McKenzie

More challenging for the petroleum industry than finding new ways to extract hard-to-reach resources may be locating the people to do it.

At the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering, a bachelor’s degree option in petroleum engineering is being launched this fall to counteract the critical shortage of talent needed to replace the industry’s aging workforce.

Frequently referred to as the big crew change, retirement of the industry’s baby boomers has begun creating a gap of available, skilled workers. Data shows a more devastating loss for the industry is not far off. The Society of Petroleum Engineers expects 40 percent of the industry’s workforce to reach retirement age next year. This, coupled with recent growth in the industry, has businesses scrambling to fill more open spots.

"Launching a new undergraduate program in petroleum engineering is a significant step toward meeting the workforce needs of the energy industry," said Joseph W. Tedesco, Elizabeth D. Rockwell Endowed Chair and dean. "The demand for petroleum engineers has never been greater, and we are now situated to better serve our energy-centered region as well as our nation.”

Approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board this month, the bachelor’s degree program will focus on petroleum engineering and geosciences, combining these fundamentals with economics, energy law and business. This program, along with a pre-existing master’s degree program, will not only work to fill gaps in the workforce, but also arm graduates with the skills necessary to respond to the continually changing industry.

An increasingly rare commodity, petroleum engineers work with geologists —searching the world for reservoirs containing oil or natural gas and later designing methods and equipment to effectively extract these resources.

Unlike the industry where many of the retiring baby boomers built their career, professionals entering the field these days command a different skill set as they are challenged to discover new ways to extract these natural resources from harder to reach places.

“The way the industry has evolved these professionals cannot operate like before,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chair of the college’s department of chemical and biomolecular engineering where the program is housed. “You really are not able to do work as a petroleum engineer without a background in geosciences.”

The program’s curriculum addresses this issue, melding geosciences with the technical aspects of petroleum engineering — computer systems, data mining and database management. Instruction in project management and entrepreneurship also are part of the core curriculum. The one-of-a-kind curriculum was molded to fit the needs of today’s petroleum engineer after consulting, extensively, with industry professionals.

“This unique degree program is highly interdisciplinary and combines fundamentals in petroleum engineering and geosciences with business, economics and energy law — created through collaboration with industry,” Krishnamoorti said. “The degree will also include a revolutionary modular curriculum allowing students to focus their degree in areas of specialization such as reservoir engineering and petroleum geology.”

Backing from industry not only with curriculum design, but also $1.6 million in financial support put up by Devon Energy and Marathon Oil corporations are helping prepare the program for its first students.

The industry support is essential, Krishnamoorti said, as the college builds the program — adding six faculty members throughout the next three years and eventually offering courses online to better accommodate working professionals interested in furthering their education.

“The B.S. degree is building on the successes of the master’s program,” said Ray Flumerfelt the petroleum program’s current director. “The M.S. program utilizes the expertise of the local industry with many courses taught by lead Ph.D. industry professionals. This will also be an important element of the new B.S. program and will ensure that the program is at the leading edge of industry and technical developments.”

The college has already seen consistent demand for its master’s degree option — nearly double — based on enrollment numbers from fall 2000 and fall 2008.  Flumerfelt said he expects the bachelor’s program to be no different.

Both Flumerfelt and Krishnamoorti hope the master’s degree program, and now the bachelor’s degree option, will not only produce graduates better prepared for the current and future needs of the industry, but also aid in staffing the widening gap of its professionals age 20-40. Professionals, the Independent Petroleum Association of America indicates make up just 27 percent of the petroleum industry —nearly half of what is typically found for the same group in other technical fields.

“There is certainly a critical need right now for petroleum engineers,” Flumerfelt said. “If there is any place to have a petroleum engineering program, this is where to have it. We are in the center of the industry, and as a university we couldn’t ignore this need.”

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