Op-Ed: University of Utah Petroleum Engineering M.S. Student Offers Reflection, Advice to Students


In this issue of ASK EGI, we welcome an editorial contribution from University of Utah M.S. in Petroleum Engineering graduate student, James (Jimmy) Schloss. Jimmy completed an M.S. in Geological Engineering at the University of Utah in August 2013 and will complete an M.S. in Petroleum Engineering in the fall of 2016. He is currently an Associate Oil & Gas Engineer with California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) in Bakersfield, CA, where he started in March 2016 after relocating from Colorado.

In 2010, as a student, James worked with Geology & Geophysics Assistant Professor Lauren Birgenheier, assisting with shale oil and geochemistry research.

He recently shared some personal thoughts and insights gained over the past decade in the Oil & Gas and Civil/Environmental Engineering industries, in hopes of supporting other M.S. Petroleum Engineering students in finding jobs after completing their degrees.

Jimmy Schloss, P.E., G.I.T.
Associate Oil & Gas Engineer, State of California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas, & Geothermal Resources

The current industry downturn is severe and is arguably among the worst the oil & gas industry has ever seen. With layoffs still occurring and stabilization potentially a way off, it’s important for students to have realistic expectations today. Without going into extensive details, a quick review of industry publications (www.fuelfix.com, www.thelayoff.com, www.bizjournals.com, etc.) offers numerous examples of the challenges facing industry and job seekers. In general terms, this is a natural period in which the market is correcting itself until oil demand or supply undergoes a notable change. Despite all of the doom and gloom however, students should never give up hope of landing a job in the current market.

Realistic Career Expectations and Student Strengths

As a recently graduated student, I have observed seismic changes in employment in the oil & gas industry between 2006 to present. A few years ago, oil & gas companies would send recruiters to the universities to hire like crazy in what they termed “The Great Crew Change” in which younger workers were ultimately supposed to replace an aging oil & gas workforce. I saw my friends and colleagues receive multiple job offers, extravagant signing bonuses, and other boom-era perks on a regular basis. Those days are over, at least for now.

I believe one of the great strengths of University of Utah M.S. Petroleum Engineering students is that they have undergraduate backgrounds and work-experience in fields other than Petroleum Engineering. This is not necessarily a fallback option to abandon hopes of finding an oil & gas job, but rather another avenue to work in the oil & gas industry that students may not have previously considered. For instance, I have seen students with bachelors in Civil Engineering and Mechanical Engineering degrees in addition to an M.S. in Petroleum Engineering land opportunities doing oil & gas pipeline design. They are able to land, and be successful in, these positions because they have a deeper understanding of fluid mechanics/hydraulics and strength of materials compared to students who may have focused exclusively on Petroleum Engineering. Many students in the program have backgrounds in Chemical Engineering and find opportunities in refining, alternative fuels, and even environmental remediation focused specially on remediating hydrocarbon contamination. Interdisciplinary education benefits both the student and the industry, producing highly qualified candidates for a wider variety of positions. For students and recent graduates, the bottom line is to focus on additional strengths, education, prior experience, etc., that can distinguish them from the competition.

I always wanted to be a Reservoir Engineer for a major operator such as Anadarko and focus on modeling, however, in the current market climate I couldn’t find any such opportunities. However, I was able to find a job with a state agency where my main objective is to focus on protecting the public and environment through permitting and regulations. However, in a diverse regulatory environment such as this, I have the opportunity to engage in a variety of work, including Petroleum Engineering & Reservoir Engineering coupled with my background in Civil/Environmental/Water Resources Engineering & Geology. I am overall very happy with my job!

 Every Industry is Cyclical

Although the oil & gas industry is the epitome of ‘boom & bust,’ students should realize that all industries are cyclical. No industry is going to have constant, steady growth and opportunities immune to market conditions. For instance, my undergraduate degree is in Civil Engineering and I always thought that I would have steady employment because society always needs roads, bridges, buildings, clean water, environmental protection, etc. However, I graduated in May 2008 during the height of the housing & construction bust. I had done an internship in Water Resources Engineering for URS Corporation in the summer of 2007 and was offered a fulltime job when I completed my degree. My job offer was rescinded right after I graduated in May 2008. After several months, I found a job in early 2009 as a Geotechnical Engineer. Hiring in the Civil Engineering industry was slow and extremely competitive for years afterward until market conditions improved. More recently, I was laid off at the beginning of 2016 from my job as a Hydrogeologist/Engineer from an environmental consulting company. My job was heavily dependent on mining activity and with a recent decline in both oil & gas and mining/metals industries, the company lost a few key contracts.

Job Search Strategies

My job search strategy is not likely much different from what most other students are currently employing, however, sharing strategies and successes can go a long way. I attribute my current job in the oil & gas industry to years of persistence, networking, and education in trying to get into the industry—and who knows, perhaps even a little karma.

First and foremost, it’s vital to have an effective cover letter and resume tailored specifically for each and every position to which students apply. A blanket or general resume is insufficient in this day and age. Students need to highlight what relevant skills, experience, and education they have which can be used to benefit a company.

Second, students need to have an up-to-date and current LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn is a great tool to highlight and even expand a resume with additional information that may not fit on a resume, particularly if you have a lengthy list of publications. LinkedIn is also a great way to stay in touch with your internal network and even reach out to new connections.

Online job searches are a great tool but have a critical flaw. While sites like Indeed, LinkedIn, Craigslist, and Rigzone are great job search tools, their weakness is that all the information is broadcast globally and unfortunately professionals from all over the world are applying to these jobs. Students may face a double whammy in that there are hundreds of applicants applying to advertised jobs from both laid off workers and newly minted graduates seeking work.

The Hidden Jobs Market Concept

The conceptual “hidden jobs market” is crucial for finding employment now more than ever. This concept is embedded in unadvertised jobs that may be found through face to face networking at professional society meetings, conferences, and internal professional networks. Other facets of the hidden market may be found through considering alternative career paths such as midstream/pipeline companies that don’t see the high volume of applicants, as is the case with major oil & gas operators and service companies.

With companies, and their HR systems, sometimes overwhelmed with 500+ applicants (many of whom are highly qualified), understanding the concept of the hidden jobs market can be invaluable to job seekers.

The hidden jobs market gives preference to jobseekers who have a connection to some decision maker in the hiring process. A recent study performed by hiring guru Lou Adler showed that 85% of jobs are landed through networking[1]. Likewise, I often read articles on LinkedIn suggesting that many jobs are not even advertised, or must be briefly advertised for legal reasons, but in reality, hiring managers already have someone they’re interested in. There is obvious benefit to being able to connect with someone you’ve worked or attended school with, etc., who knows your capabilities, and can speak to your strengths as a potential employee.

Another approach is to add less common terms and job titles to your job searches. For example, searching for “Petroleum Engineer,” “Reservoir Engineer,” etc., yields the same results that hundreds of other jobseekers are also seeing. Broaden your search to include similar, relevant terms that may yield position openings with fewer applicants and backlogs.

Use advanced job searches to target geographic areas for the degrees or skills you have. And, importantly, be open to geographic locations you may not have considered or which seem less appealing. This opens the door to the greatest potential number of available jobs. As a global industry, oil & gas operates across boundaries and across the globe. Students willing and able to extend their job search outside of their home state– or even hone country– will be rewarded with greater opportunity. For example, even during the last boom, there were far too few oil & gas opportunities in Utah. Likewise, it seems Utah has been hit especially hard with job losses in the Uinta Basin from the current downturn. I wanted to continue my career in the oil and gas industry in Denver, CO but encountered the all too familiar experience of too many qualified applicants for too few jobs. Ultimately, I ended up relocating to California.

In my most recent job search I found a lot of Pipeline Engineer and other midstream positions on LinkedIn and Indeed.com with only 20 or so applicants. Similarly, though people often shy away from Craigslist in job searches, I’ve personally found success using the site. Smaller employers may utilize Craigslist and I have personally have had pretty good success in getting responses to resumes I’ve submitted, interviews, and a few job offers over the years.

 Networking

The power of networking is critical on so many levels. Professional networks allow individuals to stay in touch with one another and offer recommendations whenever a job opportunity does surface. Employers seem to give a strong preference to a good recommendation as opposed to hiring a complete stranger. In addition, many jobs are never even advertised and a professional network helps to find and expedite the process of landing these jobs.

Lastly, no one should ever be ashamed of being laid off; layoffs are all too common in today’s business world and in every industry. Let your personal network know your current work status. They really want to help you in any way they can!

I consider my professional network all of the friends I’ve made in undergraduate & graduate schools (in my industry or others), professors I have worked closely with, professionals I’ve met at conferences, meetings, field courses, etc., and even past employers and co-workers as far back as internships from about 10 years ago.

Making New Professional Connections & Staying in Touch

Ways to make new connections:

♦  Be social at conferences, meetings, field trips/field courses, etc. Talk to the presenter(s) and others. Hand out business cards.

♦  Accept invitations from recruiters and even reach out to them. I’ve reached out to “random professionals” in the industry in the cities I’ve lived in. Most of the time people will accept an invitation, but it’s always best if you have common connections or relationships. I have reached out to a Reservoir Engineer Manager for a large company in Denver. We met up for coffee to talk about Reservoir Engineering, which was my goal at the time, as well other things such as education, past experience, current job, and more. Developing professional relationships may not necessarily result in a job offer, but can be an important part of developing the myriad connections and understanding it takes to eventually do so.

♦  Above all, don’t be shy. Be confident and take the initiative to introduce yourself rather than waiting for someone else ask to set up a meeting or drop off a resume.

Professional Credentials

Professional credentials help to demonstrate not only one’s achievements, but also a higher level of competency and assurance to potential employers. Many engineering departments require students to take the Fundamentals of Engineering exam for undergraduate requirements. This is also the first requisite to take the Professional Engineer (PE) exam and to earn a PE license. Certain fields of engineering, such as Civil Engineering, have traditionally placed more emphasis on having a PE License for liability reasons, whereas in the oil & gas industry this has not been critical. Engineering is a profession and all engineers really should have a professional license to practice in the field. The same can also be said for Geologists and I encourage Geology & Geophysics students to take the Fundamentals of Geology Exam and get their Professional Geologist (PG) licenses.

I obtained my PE license last year and my supervisor has told me that the fact I had a PE license was one of the reasons I was the offered the job I currently have. Students can find more information on professional licensure in engineering and geology through the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveyors (www.ncees.org) and the National Association of State Boards of Geology (www.asbog.org).

Final Thoughts

For me personally, I would say graduate school was one of the best experiences of my life for so many reasons. Most importantly though, it was the point in my academic career where I could finally focus exclusively on studying, taking the courses, and doing research in the subjects I was most passionate about! I wanted to use the knowledge and skillset in engineering and geology, which I knew would be within industry rather than academia. As students venture out of school, it’s important to realize that their educations do matter. Society, economies, and industry rely heavily on highly trained engineers and scientists who continue to move our understanding forward.

All of these strategies assume that companies are in fact hiring or getting ready to hire. In many cases in the oil industry, companies are not hiring period and students should do some scouting beforehand (LinkedIn, news articles talking about layoffs means that company is probably not hiring) to develop a thorough understanding of the conditions in different companies, locations, and specialties before diving into the search and application process.

These are hard times to graduate, but I assure students that persistence and hard work will pay off. Don’t give up: I applied for hundreds of jobs in Geology & Petroleum Engineering during the last boom and never found success, which was extremely frustrating. In the end though, perseverance won out and I found a job in the oil & gas industry during a severe downturn/bust.

[1] www.linkedin.com/pulse/new-survey-reveals-85-all-jobs-filled-via-networking-lou-adler