The petroleum industry, like a lot of industries, is full of sharks — they either keep swimming or they die. And as long as they keep swimming, they’re well fed.
Scott Wehner, a 26-year veteran of the petroleum industry, says we’re in the midst of a feeding frenzy — an oil boom. But this isn’t quite like J.R. Ewing’s oil boom, which was characterized by shady business deals, ten-gallon hats and big Cadillacs with horns on the front. Though driven by supply and demand, this boom is defined by technology.
“In the oil boom we are experiencing today, most any engineer will find a job,” says Wehner, a reservoir engineer. “The big question is can he or she keep it without staying abreast of developing technologies. We are the most technical industry outside of probably aerospace – it’s almost rocket science.”
Wehner, a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla who has worked for several oil companies, has seen the rise of technology in the oil fields, just as he’s witnessed the cyclical nature of the business — from boom to bust to boom. Among the responsibilities he has held is recruiting new employees from college campuses. While he recommends finding a specialty after graduation, Wehner looks to recruit students who are well-rounded.
“When I recruit on campus, I’ve already looked over resumes,” Wehner says. “I’m on site to look at character and social skills and to dig into one or two items on the resume. Involvement in extra-curricular activities and getting reasonably good grades are what should be focused on as they approach graduation and interviews. This is something that you do not just start your senior year.”
More than half of the professionals in the oil and gas industry will soon reach retirement age. And, due to the wild fluctuations in oil prices that have occurred every three or four years for the past 20 years, the industry hasn’t invested heavily in entry-level engineers. As prices have soared of late, due to the growing demand for petroleum worldwide and to unpredictable factors like hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and political turmoil in the Middle East, a perfect storm of sorts is brewing.
“Students today can expect top-paying salaries with very attractive bonuses and annual growth potential,” Wehner says. “Some things to consider when those multiple offers confront a potential graduate are job location, family, salary and future advancement opportunities. Salary doesn’t buy happiness, but it’s certainly a good down payment.”
Wehner’s first job in the industry was an eye-opener. “It was a sink or swim situation during the last oil boom,” he explains. “My boss, who was the only other engineer in the office, was transferred several months later and I was the sole engineer responsible for the design of field facilities, procurement, construction, supervision, well evaluation and logging, and so on.”
For a petroleum engineer entering the job market today, Wehner thinks it’s important to find a mentor, to start building a good reputation to maintain contacts in the industry.
“I believe that an engineer in this industry needs to be cognizant of what technology transfer abilities exist within their technical societies,” Wehner says. “My involvement with the Society of Petroleum Engineers introduced me to people around the world who would tell me in the trying times of the last oil boom collapse that they had a job waiting for me if I needed it.”
With those kinds of relationships, the industry doesn’t seem to be living up to its cut throat reputation. And Wehner thinks “big oil” does get a bad rap sometimes. He says shows like Dallas gave the business a bad name, and he thinks some of the bad publicity generated by oil spills in the past has been overblown. “The oil and gas companies actually do more for the environment than most industries,” Wehner insists. “They are on the leading edge of new energy initiatives.”
Wehner recently left a large company to tackle yet another challenge in the petroleum industry as a senior reservoir engineer with a new outfit. In some respects, you could say he’s addicted to oil.
“I’d say the toughest challenge is balancing lifestyle and family with a job that I find very exciting and intoxicating,” Wehner says. “Maybe that is the problem with us engineers, we’d all be workaholics given the chance, but family tends to bring us back to reality. We just need a reminder now and then that the day is over and it will all be here tomorrow.”