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How Low Oil Prices Are Changing Career Plans At An Ohio College

Mar 12, 2016

Marietta College has earned a global reputation for its program in petroleum engineering, drawing students from as far away as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and China to this liberal arts school in southeast Ohio.

In the past, nearly every one of the program's graduates has scored a good job in the surging energy field. But not this year. As the price of oil has plummeted, companies are cutting back on production and expansion, and cutting into Marietta's placement rate.

Katie Plas, scheduled to graduate in 2017, thinks she'll be OK. Her grades in the petroleum engineering program are top-level, and her freshman summer internship — a key element of the program — was exceptional. It's like a gold star on a resume.

She worked as a roustabout in Arkansas. Plas says it was dirty work, and sometimes dangerous.

"I wore flame-retardant clothing, all day long. And it gets rather hot especially when it's a hundred degrees." She was 19, using a sledgehammer, grateful for the growing-up work on her family's Ohio farm.

In the oil field she lived in a "man camp" apartment, which was one-third of a steel shipping container. Around the oil rigs and pipelines, the college textbook pages could come alive. She would think, "This is what I learned in class." And then the roughnecks would say, '"Well, this is how it actually works."

She feels confident she'll come out of the program next year with a job, but in the current economy many of her classmates may not be so lucky. This spring, perhaps only 30 to 40 percent of graduates from the program will have jobs waiting.

And enrollment in September could be off by half. Other big universities with petroleum programs — the University of Texas at Austin, Penn State and Texas A&M — say their numbers are down, too.

And so Marietta students like Jack Glime are watching the market carefully. "The price of oil now is like probably 33 percent of what it was when I got accepted into the petro program," he says. "It's a day-and-night difference."

The petro students are required to take history, philosophy, writing and communication courses, which may give them a leg up in shifting career choices.

Nicholas Villaveces, who'll graduate this year, says he's considering law school. "Patent law is something I'm looking into right now," he says, "and being a liberal arts student is definitely gong to put me at an advantage, and being an engineer, when I apply to law schools."

That notion would make Bob Chase smile. He's just retired as chair of the petroleum department after 37 years. "I've got former students that are attorneys, I've got former students that are doctors, believe it or not," he says. "One of my students who went on to become an anesthesiologist made the comment that you'd be amazed at how a capillary is similar to oil flowing through a pipeline."

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Because there's so much oil out there, oil companies are shutting down production and laying off workers. It's a tough market for people looking to enter the field. NPR's Noah Adams reports from Marietta College in Ohio, which has a successful petroleum engineering program. Before the industry downturn, graduates were almost guaranteed a job. But now opportunities are drying up.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: Let's start with a player in this game of getting oil out of the ground. Her name is Katie Plas. She's a junior at Marietta, and back in the summer after her freshman year, she had an internship with an oil company. She worked as a roustabout on a drilling site. It was dirty, could be dangerous and you better dress right.

KATIE PLAS: I wore FRCs, which are flame-retardant turning clothing so it covers everything from your ankles to your hands.

ADAMS: You wear that all day long.

PLAS: All day, yes.

ADAMS: She also wore steel-toed boots, safety glasses, a hardhat.

PLAS: And it gets rather hot, especially when it's 100 degrees in Arkansas.

ADAMS: This sort of internship is coveted. It's like a gold star on a resume. And Katie now figures she's sure to get a job when she graduates. That summer in the Arkansas heat - that was true-life oil drilling.

PLAS: A little difficult sometimes to think well, this is what I learned in class, and then the roughneck would say well, this is how it actually works.

ADAMS: Marietta College in southern Ohio has earned a far-reaching reputation. It's a liberal arts school where you can also learn to be a petroleum engineer. Right now 350 petro students are on campus. They're from Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, other states and countries including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and China.

RAKIBUL SARKER: And the (unintelligible) was first proposed by...

ADAMS: The classes at Marietta are small, and that does help. A subject like reservoir engineering can be intensely detailed.

SARKER: And we can calculate the initial hydrocarbon volume in place.

ADAMS: The professor, Rakibul Sarker, is showing computer diagrams up on the screen. There are 30 students in his class. And today, they're taking notes by hand. So here's how the numbers look for Marietta and petroleum engineering. Of the American students graduating with petro degrees in May, only between 30 and 40 percent will have jobs waiting. In the recent past, the placement rate has been proudly as high as 100 percent - everybody has a job to go to. Also, enrollment in the program this fall could be off by 50 percent. I checked with the petro departments at three others schools, big ones - University of Tulsa, Penn State, Texas A&M. Some of their numbers are way down, too. Marietta student Nicholas Villaveces graduates in May with his degree and no job to go to. Villaveces has been taking writing and communication courses and says he might try for law school and become a patent attorney.

NICHOLAS VILLAVECES: Patent law is something that I'm looking into right now if I want to go to law school. And being a liberal arts student is definitely going to put me at an advantage I think, and an engineer, when I apply to law schools.

ADAMS: And that notion would make Bob Chase smile. He's just retired as chair of the petroleum engineering department.

BOB CHASE: I've got former students that are attorneys. I've got former students that are doctors, believe it or not. One of my students who went on to become an anesthesiologist - he says you'd be amazed at how the blood flowing through a capillary is similar to oil flowing through a pipeline.

ADAMS: Bob Chase was running the Marietta program for 37 years. He's seen the oil prices way up and way down. But he does say if you want to be an engineer right now, it's actually the right time to be getting in, better even than four years ago at the peak of the market.

CHASE: I would predict that the kids that get into our program this coming fall that the opportunities will be better for them in four years than they are today.

ADAMS: However, the current petro students seem far more cautious than Bob Chase. Jack Glime has advice - keep watching the market.

JACK GLIME: It's a day and night difference. You know, the price of oil now is, like, probably 33 percent of what it once was when I was accepted into the petro program.

ADAMS: That's Jack Glime, a junior at Ohio's Marietta College. Now he is looking to change his major to civil or electrical engineering. Noah Adams, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.