On the surface, the employment outlook for geoscientists in oil and gas looks wonderful.
The projected job-growth percentage for geologists remains in double digits, reduced slightly by softer oil prices. That’s still better than most other occupations and impressive for a well-paying profession.
But petroleum geologists don’t make their living on the surface. Drill deeper and some mitigating trends become apparent.
First, job growth in petroleum geoscience isn’t necessarily coming from new positions. Companies in the oil industry are beginning to bring back jobs that were eliminated during the downturn, or starting to fill positions that were left open for a prolonged period of time.
In a way, things look better for employment prospects now because they were so miserable during the industry slump.
Second, the hottest geoscience market isn’t for petroleum geologists or geophysicists, or even general professional geologists. The fastest-growing demand is for geotechnicians.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and other employment-tracking services put annualized job growth in geoscience at 10 percent to 14 percent per year. For geotechs, though, BLS estimated annual job growth at 16 percent in its latest projection.
There are reasons for that. A smaller number of existing geotech jobs means a bigger job-growth percentage boost for added positions. Geotechs have a broad range of employment opportunities in many different areas.
Also, on average, geotechs make as much as 40 percent less than geologists, according to BLS numbers.
Third, the outlook for exploration geologists remains foggy. Nobody is going out on a limb to predict where oil and gas exploration is headed during the next 10 years.
Robust Job Market
Across the board, though, the employment outlook for geoscientists seems good-to-excellent at this point. And the same is true for geology students, maybe even more so. It’s a great time to be coming out of school with a degree in Earth science.
M. Stephen Enders is a professor and department head in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo.
Enders said the job market for geoscience graduates looks “surprisingly robust for all universities,” with the petroleum industry being one of the principal areas for employment.
“In the oil and gas industry, both conventional and unconventional, they are employed by all the major oil companies and some of the smaller companies. And we have a large number of students hired by Halliburton and Schlumberger,” he said.
Because of the school’s reputation and focus, many of its geoscience graduates go on to work in the mining and minerals industry, Enders said. And a significant number pursue careers in a broad range of general Earth science positions.
“They go on to careers in conventional geoscience. And I’m shocked by how robust the market is,” Enders noted.
A fourth area of graduate job demand is for professional geologists, mainly with advanced degrees, and mostly in hydrology and groundwater, he said.
“Then, of course, some of our students go on to jobs in government agencies. That’s less common, but it happens,” Enders said.
Experience and Data Reign Supreme
What employers hope for in added skills for geoscience grads reflects the general reality for industry today, according to Enders. It’s a computer-driven and data-driven world.
“They are looking for graduates that not only have a classical geological or engineering background, but they also want them to code and model and do data analytics,” he said.
Like many other universities, CSM is trying to cope with the market’s surging interest in data skills, Enders noted. Building a geoscience degree-track that would include more math, data and computing work is under discussion.
“We’re taking a hard look at adding a quantitative track as a possibility. Our challenge is to build a bigger pie and to have a bigger geoscience program and not steal students from other disciplines,” he said.
In the overall geoscience employment picture, experienced professionals continue to be in the highest demand. It’s the old story of companies wanting at least five years of experience and hoping for applicants with 10-15 years’ experience.
For students, the emphasis is on internships. And it’s still important to have experience to get experience.
“If students have not had an internship with a company, it’s much harder to get a job with that company or some other company. It’s a bit of a Catch-22,” Enders observed.
CSM closely tracks the job experiences of its students and graduates. As undergraduates have discovered, many companies aren’t exactly lavish in paying summer interns.
The school found the average salary for its undergraduate Geology and Geological Engineering students last summer was $15.49 per hour.
Grad students in G&GE did much better, commanding an average of $37.96 per hour. And the CSM data also points up the advantages of earning an advanced degree in geoscience, once a grad has entered the job market.
The 2017-18 average salary offer for CSM bachelor’s degree graduates in G&GE was $60,545, according to the school’s survey. For master’s degree grads, reported salary offers ranged from $56,160 to $125,000, with the average at $101,860.
More GeoTech Jobs Than Applicants
James Saulsbury, associate director of recruiting and employer relations for the university, noted that geodata skills have become increasingly requested and valued by industry recruiters. He concurred that the geoscience job market is looking robust now.
“If anything, I’m getting more feedback from employers about not finding applicants, more than graduates not finding employers,” he said.
What jumps out of the jobs data, and even pops up in casual conversations about geoscience careers now, is the growing demand and opportunities for geotechnicians.
“It seems like there’s a lot of interest in geologic hazards, in climate change, things that get fashionable. I’m not being negative – that’s just where the growth is,” Enders said.
“My wife is a recruiter in mining and minerals exploration and related industries, and she can’t find enough applicants” for geotechnical positions, he said, explaining the search is for applicants with five-to-15 years of experience.
The recent collapse of a dam holding back mining tailings in the Brazilian town of Brumadinho points to the importance of geotechnical work, Enders said. The disaster led to at least 169 deaths, with even more people reported missing.
Geotechnicians can have a “lifelong career” in monitoring such structures, he said.
“That’s part of our world that doesn’t get much attention,” Enders noted. “I’m telling my students the whole geotech thing can be a fascinating career.”