Another diminishing resource

ProfG has referred to Mobjectivist's resurrection of a 29-year old article on the Petroleum Predicament, by George Pazik. Back then there was a considerable appreciation of the need for energy as prices and supply were more evident issues. It led to a surge in enrollment in many of the University departments that teach aspects of energy production.

However, after that time came the Reagan years, and many of the concerns with energy quietly fell to the back burner. As a result, when Universities were seeking to grow new programs (such as those dealing with computer science, information management and biotechnology) in times of limited resource they had to look for places where there appeared to be less need for faculty and the resources that go with them. Engineering programs in general are more expensive than many other programs and those that deal with the extraction and utilization of fossil fuels were more particularly expensive. This became even more true as the demand for graduates declined and student numbers fell sharply.

Whole departments (such as the Mining Department at Wisconsin where Mr Pazik earned a minor) are now closed. The Stanford web site now lists only 47 universities that teach petroleum engineering, of which number 25 are located in the United States. Within those departments the number of faculty have been reduced, as older staff retire their replacements go to the growing departments elsewhere on campus. This has a double impact. Not only is part of the institutional memory lost, but a smaller number of faculty must teach a greater percentage of the time, and there is, as a result, less time available to develop new lines of research.

Further, because each field has many different subjects within it that faculty specialize in, the number that focus on a specific area (such as, for example only, drilling technology) becomes an even smaller part of the whole. Further, since this has not been a major concern within the industry itself over the past two decades, there are not huge numbers of experts either in the industry or the National Loaboratories, who can pretend to state-of-the-art knowledge in any of these specific subject areas.

Student numbers are starting to rise again as our predicament returns, but the experts and the knowledge base is depleted and this may well strain the existing facilities. Class sizes will still not be large, relative to those of other schools, so that it may be difficult to garner Administrative support for growth. And this all takes time. In the interim, until that academic base is strengthened, it will also have an impact on how fast useful new technology can be conceived, since the teaching role will assume more dominance.
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I was back in school in 1981, the first student at Louisiana Tech University who worked 7 days offshore and then went to school for 7 days. I was in Petroleum Engineering at the time, taking a course called "Introduction to Petroleum". I had special permission from the Dean to do this.

I missed the first 3 classes of 'Intro' because I was offshore working (as a driller on an offshore jackup rig). My first day in class, the instructor explained how oil was below ground in pockets and drilling was all we had to do to find more. I listened to this for 45 minutes, before I couldn't stand it. I stuck my hand up, and started asking questions. After the 4th question went unanswered by my instructor, I got up to leave. He asked me to please wait a minute, then he dismissed the class.

Turns out this guy was a laid off airline pilot who took the job teaching freshman because he was a friend of the Dean. The Dean couldn't find anybody with oilfield experience to fill the position. I was also a "friend-of-Dean", so I was in no position to upset my one-of-a-kind status of working and school. I told him I was a driller, and that he wasn't even close to reality in his lectures. His response? "Next time you ask a question I can't answer, be prepared to come up and explain it to us all."

He didn't think I would, so I did. Then he walked off the podium and I went up. I finished the semester doing this, got an 'A', and went on.

Point being: when the oil industry is going full steam ahead, nobody worth a damn is going to teach. Not when they can pull down $1200/day as a consultant. Yes, that is the going rate right now. Who would want to teach when you can make a quarter million a year and still take off every third week?

Guys working in the "service sector" of the oil patch are getting $500 per day. And these guys rarely have a college education - they simply know their products.

This is why, even after students graduate, it takes my industry at LEAST 5 years of continuing corporate education before they can deal with all the disparate techologies involved in oil drilling and production. You are a "worm" until you have the ability to walk on a drilling or production rig and take control. Even then, we have to be careful of "wormy" engineers, as they tend to stand in dangerous places on a rig, or suggest operations that have the potential to blow us all up or hurt someone.

Every oil field hand has an innate ability to ferret out the "worms" and take advantage of them, or school them as they see fit. Fortunately, we are eager for pupils because there have been so few in these past 20 years.

To make a difference, it will be 10 years before todays college students can truly contribute in any meaningful way.

Factor ALL this in when you guys are thinking about college graduates' Because the length of their time as a "worm" is directly related to how well they are taught in college. And my college experience leads me to believe that Wal-Mart managers may well be teaching "Introduction to Petroleum" before a real driller does.

J's absolutely correct. When I started working for Union Oil in the mid 1980's a position as an exploration geologist paying $40K (1980 dollars!) was yours if you had a BS in Geology and a warm body (By the way, several of my classmates were mining geologists bailing-out of a miserable job market in mining). By the mid 1990's, after zero wage growth, numerous rounds of layoffs, and one too many relocation "offers", I took my opportunity to bail into something a bit more stable. During this period existing talent found its way into other fields and jobs for new graduates were as scarce as discoveries of super-giant oil fields. The "bottom" of the boom and bust cycle wasn't all that long ago so perhaps the current bull market in oil hasn't been 'round long enough to attract a new generation of students.


IMHO, the real problem is government monopoly of colleges through approved accreditation. There is no competition in higher education, which is why my kids tuition increases each semester. For the last 4 years, EVERY SEMESTER has seen a 7-17% increase in tuition. And for what?

My God, but you should read the trash that passes for textbooks, each costing over $100. My son brought them home just because he knew it would set me off. Not only do most of them abuse the english language, but they are so very full of bad spelling, bad grammar and stupidity that I almost blew my carotid artery out. Why, it's a good thing I read his history book or I would never know that the civil war was secretly begun by black slaves...or that the Federal Reserve prints money when the economy needs it...AAARRRGGGHHHH!!

Another problem is the "Every Child Held Back With the Stupid Ones" policy of the Bush administration. I never thought that public education could get worse, but it has. My high schooler spends 9 weeks of every year prepping for the TAKS test which determines teacher raises and school appropriations. Which is why it now takes an extra year for a 4 year degree...THANKS KING GEORGE!

Short of talent? Problems with competent employees? Declining enrollment?

All you need to do is read what they are feeding the kids at university and you will quickly understand where the problem lies.

At my home, we are actually deciding whether to send them abroad or not. It is almost the same price, excluding airfare!!