HOUSTON – Sabrina Burns, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, had thought she would embark on a lucrative career in the oil and gas industry when she graduated in a few months.
But the collapse in demand for oil and gas during the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted her well-established plans and forced her to consider a new path.
“We had a slap in the face, a totally unforeseen situation that shook our whole state of mind,” said Ms. Burns, who studies petroleum engineering. “I applied for every oil and gas job I’ve seen, like all of my classmates, and nothing really happened. I am discouraged.
With fewer people commuting and traveling, the oil and gas industry has taken a hard hit. Oil companies have laid off more than 100,000 workers. Many companies have closed refineries and some have filed for bankruptcy protection.
The industry has attracted thousands of young people in recent years with the promise of secure careers as shale drilling took off and made the United States the world’s largest oil producer. But many students and recent graduates say they are no longer sure there is a place for them in the industry. Even after the pandemic has ended, some of them fear that growing concerns about climate change will lead to the inevitable decline of oil and gas.
These students seek elite positions in an oil and gas industry that employs approximately two million people. Even after recent layoffs, oil companies still employ more people than fast-growing wind and solar companies, which employ at least 370,000 people, according to occupational groups.
Ms Burns, 22, said her choices have narrowed dramatically over the past nine months. With limited opportunities in oil and gas, she recently accepted an internship at a consulting engineering firm specializing in energy conservation, and she could potentially apply for graduate studies in environmental science. She is also considering moving in with her sister after graduation to save money.
“I have the impression that companies are going to be careful enough to get out of this situation, to recruit new employees,” she said.
Ms Burns was drawn to an oil and gas career by the stories her helicopter pilot father told her about the female engineers he had met to maintain offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico . But if her teachers have spoken about the future of oil and gas companies, she is worried.
Even before the pandemic, Ms Burns said, she had doubts about the industry she had chosen. Other students and even an Uber driver carrying her with others to an oil industry banquet in 2018 raised questions about the future of oil and gas and why renewables might be a better bet. .
“Have you ever heard of a solar panel?” she remembers the Uber driver asking her and her friends.
“The silent judgment and passionate comments weighed heavily on me,” she added. Her parents persuaded her to stick to her program, and Ms. Burns said she was committed to the industry and working to improve her environmental performance.
“I hope I can eventually put all my skills and knowledge into practice,” she said.
“The demand will come back.”
Stephen Zagurski, a geology graduate student at Rice University, said the timing of his graduation in the coming weeks was “not perfect, far from it”.
“You are short of available positions and you have a huge pool of talent and an abundance of graduates coming out of school,” he added. “This will make the opportunities to enter the industry even more difficult.”
But Mr Zagurski, 23, said the oil and gas industry will rebound as it has repeatedly done over the past century, despite the popular idea that the pandemic will permanently reduce consumption patterns in the world. ‘energy. “The demand will come back,” he said. “Let’s be honest here, how many things in our daily lives contain some kind of petroleum product.”
Mr. Zagurski interned at Roxanna Oil, a small company run by his second cousins, and he was given more and more responsibility.
He can probably join Roxanna full time after graduation and is confident that the market for young geoscientists and engineers will eventually pick up. If the oil industry does not rebound, he also plans to work in geothermal or environmental sciences or to do a doctorate. “Everyone is biding their time to see what will happen,” he said.
Some have changed industry.
Myles Hampton Arvie, a senior at the University of Houston studying finance and accounting, wanted to follow his father into the oil and gas industry.
“I am passionate about energy and gas,” he said. “Oil and gas will get nowhere for the next 20 or 30 years, so as we make this transition to cleaner energy, why not be part of it?”
His father was a project manager in the offshore fields of the Gulf of Mexico. Mr. Arvie is interested in a clerical job and has completed two internships at EY, also known as Ernst & Young, where he did financial modeling, auditing and balance sheet development. of several American and Canadian oil companies. He became vice president of the Energy Coalition, a student group that provides education and job fair opportunities for students.
Mr Arvie drew enough attention to land talks with several oil and gas companies, but a job offer proved elusive. “It’s very competitive,” he said, and the downturn has only made it more difficult to get a job.
Prepared to graduate in May, Mr. Arvie, 22, has changed careers and accepted a job with JPMorgan Chase, where he hopes to get involved in derivatives and marketing in the tech industry. One day, however, he says, he might find a place in the energy industry.
“I’m a little disappointed,” he said. “But you have to keep moving.”
“Just bad timing.
Clayton Brown, a University of Houston graduate student studying petroleum geology, recalls finding an article online four years ago that claimed the future couldn’t be brighter for geologists investigating reserves. underground oil and gas.
“I saw the salary that petroleum geologists earn and I was immediately interested,” Mr. Brown said.
From Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, North Carolina, Mr. Brown continued his geology studies at Western Colorado University. He was fascinated by the science behind seismic testing and rock and sand formations.
Confident in his choice of career, he borrowed tens of thousands of dollars to continue his education.
Now 23, Brown has a student debt of $ 55,000. When he graduates next fall, he will owe approximately $ 70,000. To make matters worse, the small oil company where he was interning recently stopped paying him because it was reducing the costs of managing the downturn.
He returned to North Carolina to live with his parents while taking online classes and sending resumes. “Covid was quite the curve ball,” he says. “No one expects a virus to come and destroy the oil industry.”
Yet, he said, he has no regrets and calls the recession “bad timing”.
A job for the moment but concerned with the future.
Tosa Nehikhuere, the son of Nigerian immigrants, was relatively lucky. Shortly after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018, he joined a major European oil company, doing various internships and jobs in the field and in the trading room.
But the race has been so volatile that he already has doubts about the direction he has taken at university.
Mr. Nehikhuere’s parents were poor in Nigeria. They moved to New York City, where Mr. Nehikhuere’s father drove a cab. They ended up traveling to Houston, where life was cheaper and her parents pursued a career in nursing.
They embraced the oil industry, which dominates Texas and their home country, and pushed their son to pursue petroleum engineering. It is a common path for immigrants and first and second generation Americans in Texas.
In the middle of Mr. Nehikhuere’s first year, the Saudi Arabia-led Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries flooded the global oil market in an attempt to undermine the burgeoning US shale oil drilling industry. , causing prices to fall.
“It was quite scary,” he recalls. “I have seen seniors with three internships in the same company being frozen; juniors, second year students having difficulty obtaining internships. All in all, it was pretty bad in terms of job prospects. “
Mr Nehikhuere thought about changing majors, but he thought oil prices would pick up, as they have done so many times, and they did for most of 2018 and 2019.
But the coronavirus pandemic took hold just as Mr. Nehikhuere’s career was gaining ground, and now he’s worried again.
Mr Nehikhuere, 24, declined to identify his employer, but said he was laying off workers and wondered how far he should switch from oil and gas to renewables.
If the business is moving quickly to cleaner energy, he said, it’s not sure there is a place for it. “To what extent will my skills be transferred?”
“There are going to be a significant number of layoffs, changes and outsourcing,” he added. “To be honest, I don’t know if this is going to affect me or not. It’s really in the air.
Mr. Nehikhuere is already considering a change, perhaps looking for a job with a consulting firm or a company that supplies technology to oil and gas companies.
“As I think about my career more and more, the volatility that comes with working for an oil and gas company can be very unsettling,” he said. “I prefer to have something more stable.”