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Katherine Lymn, Forum News Service, Published November 03 2013

Petroleum engineering highest-paying college major; few women in field

DICKINSON, N.D. – The demand for oil industry talent has made petroleum engineering the most valuable degree in America.

Women, however, still lag behind, according to new data.

Those who majored in petroleum engineering and are full-time workers made a median salary of $120,000 – the highest of the 171 majors studied.

But when divided by gender, the value of petroleum engineering plummets for women, who make up a single-digit percentage of the field, study co-author and Georgetown University research professor Anthony Carnevale said.

The University of North Dakota, the only college in the state with a petroleum engineering undergraduate program, has seen the relatively new department surge from fewer than 10 students in 2010 to more than 200 today, department chairman Steve Benson said.

Benson wasn’t shocked by the study’s findings.

“I guess I’m not surprised based on the need,” he said. “There’s a significant demand, and that demand is probably gonna be there for a while.”

Montana Tech’s petroleum engineering program has grown by about 10 percent each of the past six years and now has more than 400 students, said Leo Heath, the department head.

Nationwide, Heath said only 21 colleges offer an undergraduate petroleum engineering program, with three of those starting in the past five years. He said a struggle in starting such a program is finding the specialized faculty to run the major.

The University of Wyoming and the Colorado School of Mines also have the major.

Carnevale and his colleagues used census data made available in 2011, after the survey began asking Americans what sort of education they have, including their degree.

Based on the young age of those making big bucks in petroleum engineering, the data show that the degree’s value has gone up substantially since the 1990s, Carnevale said.

At Montana Tech, women are only 10 percent of the growing petroleum engineering student base.

At UND, they make up only 6 percent.

Benson said the department is working to fix this, with women from the department working to recruit others.

“We really want to encourage women to enroll in the program,” he said. “I think across the country they’re trying to increase the enrollment of women into petroleum engineering.”

Nina Patel, international chair for IEEE Women in Engineering, said the root of the problem is a lack of a pipeline to get girls interested in engineering early in life, especially for a relatively new field such as petroleum engineering.

She said women in engineering also can face subtle discrimination, like being looked at as less tough than a man, which can drive them out of the field.

Carnevale said women penetrate male-dominated fields “remarkably slowly.”

In software engineering, for example, women made up just 1 percent of workers two decades ago and are now on track for 15 percent.

“One of the most striking patterns in education is gender,” he said, because women get more education in terms of time and degrees, but men tend to get jobs that pay them more.