‘A Slap within the Face’: The Pandemic Disrupts Younger Oil Careers

HOUSTON – Sabrina Burns, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, thought that in a few months after graduating, she would embark on a lucrative career in the oil and gas industry.

But the collapse in demand for oil and gas during the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted their well-designed plans, forcing them to consider a new avenue.

“We got a slap in the face, a completely unforeseen situation that shook our entire mindset,” said Ms. Burns, who studies petroleum engineering. “Like all of my classmates, I applied for every oil and gas site I saw and nothing really came up. I am discouraged. “

With fewer people commuting and traveling, the oil and gas industry has suffered a severe blow. 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 drawn thousands of young people with the promise of secure careers in recent years as shale drilling began and made the United States the world’s largest oil producer. But many students and graduates say they are no longer sure that there is a place for them in the industry. Even after the pandemic ends, some of them fear that growing climate change concerns will lead to an inevitable decline in oil and gas.

These students seek elite positions in an oil and gas industry that employs approximately two million people. Even after the most recent layoffs, oil companies still employ more people than the fast-growing wind and solar companies, which together employ at least 370,000 people, according to trade groups.

Ms. Burns, 22, said her choices had narrowed significantly over the past nine months. With oil and gas options limited, she recently took on an internship with an engineering firm specializing in energy conservation and may have applied to a graduate school in environmental sciences. She is also considering moving in with her sister after graduation to save money.

“I have a feeling companies are going to be pretty careful when it comes to hiring new employees,” she said.

Ms. Burns was lured into an oil and gas career by stories told by her father, a helicopter pilot, about the successful engineers he met while servicing offshore drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. But while her professors have been talking about the future of oil and gas companies, she is concerned.

Even before the pandemic, Ms. Burns said, she had some doubts about her chosen industry. Other students, and even an Uber driver who took them and others to an oil industry banquet in 2018, asked questions about the future of oil and gas and why renewable energies might be a better choice.

“Have you ever heard of a solar panel?” She remembers the Uber driver who asked her and her friends.

“The silent judgment and the passing comments weighed on me,” she added. Her parents persuaded her to stick with her program, and Ms. Burns said she was committed to the industry and working to improve her environmental performance.

“I hope that at some point I will be able to use all of my skills and knowledge,” she said.

Stephen Zagurski, a PhD student in geology at Rice University, said the timing of his graduation in the coming weeks was “not perfect, far from it”.

“You have a shortage of vacancies and you have a huge talent pool and an abundance of graduates leaving school,” he added. “It will make it difficult to get into the industry.”

However, 23-year-old Zagurski said the oil and gas industry will bounce back, as it has done many times over the last century, despite popular belief that the pandemic would permanently reduce energy consumption habits. “Demand will come back,” he said. “Let’s face it here, how many things in our daily lives contain some type of petroleum-based product.”

Mr. Zagurski is interning with Roxanna Oil, a small company with managers who are his second cousins, and has been given increasing levels of responsibility.

He can likely come to Roxanna full time after graduation and is confident that the market for young geoscientists and engineers will eventually recover. If the oil industry does not recover, he is also considering working or doing a PhD in geothermal or environmental science. “Everyone is waiting for their time to see what will happen,” he said.

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.

“Energy and gas are something that I love,” he said. “Oil and gas are not going anywhere for the next 20 or 30 years. So why not be a part of it while we make this clean energy transition?”

His father was a project manager on offshore fields in the Gulf of Mexico. Mr. Arvie is interested in an office job and has completed two internships at EY, also known as Ernst & Young. He has created financial models, conducted audits, and refined financial statements for several American and Canadian oil companies. He became vice chairman of the Energy Coalition, a student group that hosts educational and job fairs for students.

Mr. Arvie drew enough attention to land interviews with several oil and gas companies, but one vacancy turned out to be elusive. “It’s very competitive,” he said, and the downturn has only made it harder to get a position.

Arvie, 22, who is due to graduate in May, has switched careers to take a position at JPMorgan Chase, where he is expected to work in derivatives and marketing in the tech industry. However, one day he could find a place in the energy industry.

“I’m a little disappointed,” he said. “But you have to keep it moving.”

Clayton Brown, a graduate student at the University of Houston studying petroleum geology, recalls finding an article online four years ago claiming that the future is no better for geologists studying underground oil and gas reserves could look.

“I saw the salary petroleum geologists make and immediately got interested,” said Mr. Brown.

At Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, NC, Mr. Brown studied geology at Western Colorado University. He was fascinated by the science behind seismic testing and rock and sand formations.

Confident in his career choice, he borrowed tens of thousands of dollars to continue his education.

Mr. Brown, 23, has $ 55,000 in student debt. By the time he graduates next fall, he will owe about $ 70,000. To make matters worse, the small oil company he interned at recently stopped paying him as it reduced the cost of managing the downturn.

He moved back to North Carolina to live with his parents while taking classes and mailing out résumés online. “Covid was pretty much the curveball,” he said. “Nobody expects a virus to destroy the oil industry.”

Even so, he said he had no regrets and called the downturn “just bad timing”.

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 and worked in various internships and jobs on site and on the trading platform.

But it’s been such an unsafe ride that he’s already worried about the direction he’s headed in college.

Mr. Nehikhuere’s parents were poor in Nigeria. They moved to New York, where Mr. Nehikhuere’s father drove a taxi. They eventually made their way to Houston, where life was cheaper and his parents had careers in nursing.

They embraced the oil business that dominates Texas and their homeland and pushed their son into petroleum engineering. It is a common path of immigrants and first and second generation Americans in Texas.

In the middle of Mr. Nehikhuere’s freshman year of study, the Saudi-led Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries flooded the world market with oil in an attempt to undercut the booming American shale oil drilling industry and bring prices down.

“It was pretty nerve-wracking,” he recalled. “I’ve seen seniors get frozen with three internships at the same company. Juniors, sophomore students struggling to get internships. All in all, it was pretty bad in terms of job prospects. “

Mr Nehikhuere was considering switching majors, but he expected oil prices to recover, as they had so often, through most of 2018 and 2019.

But the coronavirus pandemic set in as Mr Nehikhuere’s career took off, and now he’s worried again.

Mr Nehikhuere, 24, did not want to identify his employer but said he is laying off workers and debating how aggressively he should move away from oil and gas to renewable energy.

If the company is moving quickly towards clean energy, he is not sure there will be a place for him. “How much will my skills be transferred?”

“There will be a significant number of layoffs, changes and outsourcing,” he added. “To be honest, I don’t know if it will affect me or not. It’s really in the air. “

Mr Nehikhuere is already considering a change and may be looking for a job with a consulting firm or a company providing technology to oil and gas companies.

“As I think more and more about my career, the volatility that comes with working for an oil and gas company can be very worrying,” he said. “I prefer something more stable.”

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