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John Hageman, Forum News Service, Published October 18 2013

Oil Patch employers look to UND for growing workforce

GRAND FORKS – Joel Brown was having somewhat of a tough time getting employers to look at his resumé.

Brown, a Watford City native, was one of the first four graduates of the University of North Dakota’s petroleum engineering program this spring after the program was launched in 2010.

“Each company has their different schools that they like to recruit from,” Brown said. “And when I graduated, there wasn’t a single company that was used to recruiting from UND.”

But today, oil and gas companies are showing more interest in the three-year-old department as a talent pool for future employees. And the 200 or so students who are enrolled there are joining a workforce that is projected to grow by 17 percent by 2020.

That growth is partially fueled by increased oil and gas production in the Oil Patch, and the need for people with the technical expertise to know how to extract the energy resources. North Dakota produced a record 911,000 barrels of oil per day in August.

“I think some of the industry was aware of UND … because we were encouraging them to start the program when this Bakken play started,” said Terry Kovacevich, regional vice president in the Marathon Oil Co. office in Dickinson. “But I think more and more of industry is aware.”

Companies take interest

On a recent rainy day, Nick Lentz lectured 15 students on methods of measuring rock porosity.

Before Lentz begins class, he dons a clip-on microphone that records his lecture for online students. Some of them already are working in the field, but eventually want to get a better job that requires more technical knowledge, said Lentz, an assistant professor in the department.

“And online courses give them the ability to work their regular job and make progress toward their degree,” he said.

Just behind the students’ shoulders in the Upson Hall classroom was the Whiting Petroleum Corp. logo. The Denver-based developer of oil and natural gas donated money that the department ultimately used for the technology that makes online courses possible.

Industry representatives often stop by classrooms to give talks and potentially recruit students, Lentz said. Some have gone on to work for those companies full time or as interns over the summer.

“Naturally, if you get someone that works well, you’re going to keep going to that same pool to grab people out of,” Lentz said.

Industry representatives also visit with the department twice a year, said department Chairman Steve Benson, to provide feedback on curriculum and preparing students to join the workforce. Kovacevich is the chairman of that industry advisory committee.

“In a very short time frame, they’ve had tremendous growth,” Kovacevich said. “And so that growth allows companies to recruit for permanent jobs and summer internship programs.”

Enrollment growth

Benson doesn’t know how large the petroleum engineering department will become, but he doesn’t expect enrollment to stop growing now.

And the industry’s workforce projections back up that expectation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 30,200 petroleum engineering jobs nationwide in 2010, a number that is expected to grow to 35,300 by 2020.

The department is preparing for growth by moving into a larger home in the $10 million Collaborative Energy Complex, which will be located between Upson Hall I and the Harold Hamm School of School of Geology and Geological Engineering in Leonard Hall. UND is in the fundraising stage of that project.

Most of UND’s petroleum engineering students don’t come far to get their degree. Benson said 42 percent are from North Dakota and 26 percent are from Minnesota.

Jake Fladeland, one of the program’s first four graduates, said companies in western North Dakota are looking to attract local talent.

“They want people that are going to want to stay in North Dakota,” he said. “They have a big turnover problem right now.”

Fladeland is likely to stay in the state for a while. He worked at Patterson UTI Drilling Co. as a rig hand out of high school, but he said it would have taken him 20 years to work his way up before he could get the job at EOG Resources in Stanley that he has today.

Brown, who now works for MBI Oil & Gas as a reservoir engineer in Denver, said his grandfather dropped out of school when he was 16 to work in the oilfields of North Dakota. Later, he started his own successful company that helps oil companies retrieve things that fall down an oil well.

“But he would never be a petroleum engineer,” Brown said. “In order to start out in this position … you need a degree in petroleum engineering or another engineering degree that you can apply, at least.”