Math, Science, and Computer Students: The Energy Sector Wants You

Education varies for future energy jobs, from needing a high school diploma to an advanced degree.

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A technology revolution reshaping the energy sector through streamlined operations, increased production, and improved distribution will create ample job opportunities for college graduates over the next decade, energy and labor experts say.

Public utilities and oil and gas companies were sometimes dismissed in the past by college grads as too lumbering and old-school. That view is rapidly changing as energy companies deploy technology-laden smart grids, establish high-tech mission control centers, and embrace wireless sensors, predictive intelligence, and other cutting-edge innovations.

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While much of the energy sector's hiring over the next decade will involve skilled and unskilled labor to operate drill rigs and tractor trailers, college grads with technical and advanced degrees will be needed to fill lucrative positions as engineers, scientists, and technicians. "I think the percent of [energy] jobs that are technology-related is just going to continue to rise," says Rick Nicholson, group vice president at IDC Energy Insights. As a result, students with math, science, and computer backgrounds are in "high demand" from energy producers, and colleges and universities are placing a greater emphasis on preparing grads to fill entry-level positions at these companies, he adds.

"I am very bullish on the energy sector as an area of job growth in the U.S. over the next decade," says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the nation's oldest outplacement consulting firm. New career opportunities with energy firms are "inevitable" as the country weans itself from Mideast oil and taps more domestic resources, he says. He also sees global opportunities with energy companies, particularly for college grads with strong foreign-language skills.

Much of the job creation will be driven by domestic production of shale. These underground deposits of oil and natural gas are found in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, where the Marcellus Shale straddles an eight-state region, as well as in North Dakota, where energy companies are racing to tap the Bakken Oil Field that extends from Montana to Canada. For college graduates willing to venture to Canada, Ft. McMurray in northern Alberta is a booming, though remote, center for the production of tar-like petroleum deposits called oil sands.

[See Where the Jobs Will Be in 2020.]

Job-growth projections from 2010 to 2020 released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics present a mixed view of the energy sector. The BLS foresees an increase of 23,000 oil and gas extraction jobs over the next decade, largely due to the rise in shale production, but a decrease of 47,000 jobs with electric power and natural gas utilities. "New technologies, along with newer and larger facilities, have led to more efficient [utility] plants that require fewer workers," the BLS explained in its 2012 employment outlook.

Skills for energy jobs of the future will vary widely, from high school diplomas to two- or four-year college educations to advanced degrees, depending on the level of expertise required. Here's a snapshot of opportunities through 2020:

Oil and gas: The dramatic increase in domestic oil and gas exploration and production will create demand for information-technology specialists. Job titles will include petroleum, reservoir, and software engineers; database administrators; field service technicians, who test and maintain equipment such as pumps and compressors; wireline operators, who collect data and perform other tasks; and geologists, geophysicists and geoscientists, who help pinpoint energy reserves and guide operations. Demand could be strongest for skilled labor, including drill-rig operators; mechanics and welders, to handle extraction and refining; and unskilled labor, such as truck drivers, to haul equipment and fuel.

Environmental protection: Professionals with environmental and/or technical backgrounds will be needed to fill positions as occupational health and safety technicians to ensure that energy producers comply with federal, state, and local regulations. Demand could grow if increased domestic-energy production sparks more controversy over environmental consequences. Major energy producers and the dozens of oil field service companies that contract with them will conduct the hiring.