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Energy companies help KU combat geologist shortage

KU student Nathan Winters can afford to be picky in choosing a job after graduation.

"There are definitely companies that are really aggressive," Winters said. He's already turned down two offers but is confident the perfect one will come along.

Winters, who plans to graduate in May with a master's degree in geology, knows he and his classmates are in high demand as energy companies such as Chevron, EnCana and Exxon Mobil face a looming shortage of geologists. New employees are necessary for helping energy companies find new sources of oil and natural gas and develop ways to extract the oil for use.

"They would need 40,000 geologists and geophysicists in the U.S. alone. That's just to replace the coming retirements," said Bob Goldstein, distinguished professor and chair of KU's Department of Geology.

U.S. universities produce only 1,200 master's and doctoral geology graduates a year. Goldstein fears schools won't be able to meet the demand in the oil and gas industry to replace attrition.

The wider impact of that shortage, he says, is that it could lead to a shortage of oil and gas as well.

"Huge population countries like China are expanding their energy usage. That's not going to slow down," Goldstein said. "Reserves and production will be less and less in comparison to demand, and that will drive the price up."

To help fill their ranks, energy companies are making sure universities like KU are turning out a greater number of potential recruits.

EnCana endowed a scholarship fund at KU with a $50,000 commitment this year, to be evaluated yearly. The fund will support geology students interested in energy careers.

"It's a great time for students to come out in geology because there is such a need," said Andrea Steinle, a KU graduate and geologist at EnCana. She recently returned to campus to conduct job interviews for the company.

EnCana hired four KU grads this year. Company representatives say rarely higher more than one student from any given university.

Chevron has donated $30,000 a year, ConocoPhillips has increased its donation to $25,000 a year and Chesapeake Energy Corp. is donating $25,000 per year year for four years, each to support research assistantships or scholarships for KU students interested in working in the energy industry.

"They want to make sure that we bring in the best students and that they move on into the oil and gas industry," said Goldstein. "So they're putting their money where their mouths are and supporting the program very well."

That support can also mean increased salary offers for new recruits.

According to the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the average starting pay for new graduates has risen from $53,600 in 2000 to $74,400 in 2006. Goldstein said some students have received offers in the $80,000 range.

"They're really competitive. They usually include some stock options and even sign-on bonuses," said Winters.

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