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Perhaps 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, a bachelor’s degree plan in petroleum engineering will be offered starting next fall to help replenish the industry’s aging workforce.
“Launching a new undergraduate program in petroleum engineering is a significant step toward meeting the workforce needs of the energy industry,” said Cullen College of Engineering dean Joseph W. Tedesco. “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.”
The Society of Petroleum Engineers projects 40 percent of the industry’s workforce will reach retirement age next year. That, coupled with growth in the industry and a national decline in the number of students pursuing degrees in technical fields, has businesses scrambling for talent.
“This new undergraduate degree plan complements UH’s other energy-related programs and strengthens our commitment to produce a highly educated workforce to address the needs of the region and the state,” said UH President Renu Khator, citing the university’s construction management and carbon trading course offerings.
“Already, more than 28,000 students at UH are pursuing degrees with ties to the energy industry. This is the right university, the right time and the right city for this kind of program,” she said.
Approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on Thursday, the degree program will combine the fundamentals of petroleum engineering and geosciences with economics, energy law and business. The program, along with a pre-existing master’s degree option, aims to fill gaps in the workforce and arm graduates with the skills needed to respond to the evolving industry.
The curriculum was established after consulting extensively with the college’s petroleum engineering advisory board, which is made up of industry professionals, and Devon Energy and Marathon Oil have contributed $1.6 million toward the program.
“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,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chair of the college’s department of chemical and biomolecular engineering, where the program is housed. “The degree will also include a revolutionary modular curriculum allowing students to focus their degrees in areas of specialization, such as reservoir engineering and petroleum geology.”
Ray Flumerfelt, the petroleum program’s director, said UH was perfectly positioned to provide a petroleum engineering program. “We are in the center of the industry and, as a university, we couldn’t ignore this need,” he said.
Petroleum engineers work with geologists to uncover untapped reservoirs of oil or natural gas and design techniques and equipment to extract the resources.
“The way the industry has evolved, these professionals cannot operate like before,” said Krishnamoorti. “You really are not able to do work as a petroleum engineer without a background in geosciences.”
The curriculum melds geosciences with the technical aspects of petroleum engineering – computer systems, data mining and database management – and includes instruction in project management and entrepreneurship.
Industry support is essential, Krishnamoorti said, as the college builds the program – adding six faculty members over the next three years and eventually offering courses online to better accommodate working professionals.
“The B.S. degree is building on the successes of the master’s program,” Flumerfelt said. “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 seen consistent demand for its master’s degree, with enrollment nearly doubling in the past eight years. Flumerfelt said he expects the undergraduate program to follow suit.