Where the jobs are
Virginia schools don’t offer all specialties, but graduates see plenty of demand
College graduates with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering earned the highest average salary — by more than a third — of any undergraduate major in 2013, the latest year for which data is available.
Petroleum engineers’ starting salary of $97,000 was tops in all categories, according to a salary survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) and reported by Forbes.
But if you want a degree in petroleum engineering, you’ll have to go somewhere besides Virginia. No state engineering school offers the degree despite a recent revival in U.S. oil production.
Virginia’s engineering school deans say that petroleum engineering is one of those specialty programs better addressed by schools in states where oil exploration and production are big business —Texas and Oklahoma, for example.
Petroleum engineering also has been an area that has seen cyclical demand in the past due to the boom-and-bust swings of the oil industry.
But the absence of a degree-granting program in petroleum engineering does not mean that Virginia is shut out of the nation’s petroleum and natural gas renaissance.
David Cox, head of Virginia Tech’s chemical engineering program, says that petroleum and chemical engineers are like cousins.
“The petroleum industry employs a lot of chemical engineers,” Cox says.
He notes that once a well is drilled and oil is produced, the oil still has to be processed and refined, and that’s where chemical engineers come into play.
Cox says that along with a boom in the petroleum industry, an uptick in the national conversation about the use of nontraditional sources of energy, such as biofuels, has a lot more people interested in chemical engineering.
“We’re bursting at the seams with undergraduates in our department,” Cox says. “The enrollments in chemical engineering have doubled in the past five years. We’re turning students away.”
With starting pay of $67,500, chemical engineering graduates are third on the list of undergraduate majors with the highest beginning salaries in engineering.
Richard Benson, dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, says the university soon will take another step forward in the rapidly developing energy sector, with the creation of an undergraduate degree in natural-gas engineering.
The development of high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has enabled drillers to release the gas and oil trapped inside shale, providing the U.S. with an increasing surplus of fossil fuels.
“It’s a game-changer,” Benson says. “It will diminish the need for coal and nuclear power, and slow down wind and solar.”
He notes that sometimes there are regional issues that help drive the creation of a particular university program.
For example, Virginia Tech has one of North America’s largest mining and minerals engineering departments, reflecting the historic mining industry in Southwest Virginia and nearby states.
The department’s graduates also boast the highest job placement rate at the university, 100 percent, according to the department’s website.
At the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science, Dean James Aylor says that computer science majors typically head the list of highest starting salaries for U.Va. graduates.
“Northern Virginia drives it,” Aylor explains. “It is sort of an information-engineering culture, big data.”
Nationally, computer engineering graduates earn the second-highest starting salary, $70,900, behind petroleum engineers.
Aylor believes that U.Va.’s engineering school is meeting the demands of an accelerating market for engineers, in a STEM-centric (Science Technology Engineering and Math) economy.
“The demand has been growing almost exponentially,” Aylor says. “For this coming year, we had 5,800 applications for 600 positions.”
For engineers, Aylor says he’s never seen a job market so good.
George Mason University’s Volgenau School of Engineering also is responding to the influence of big data.
The school recently created a master’s in data analytics engineering. “We started the program because of the demand for ‘big data’,” says Senior Associate Dean Stephen Nash.
Volgenau School has more than 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The school’s Applied Information Technology program is thriving, with an enrollment of more than 1,250 students.
Nash says the region’s ever expanding high technology industry needed the program to create a pipeline for skilled employees.
He notes that the Volgenau School recently was named one of the nation’s top 10 engineering schools for return on investment by Affordable Colleges Online.
“Our students are getting jobs before they graduate,” Nash says, especially in key areas such as information security.
In Virginia, U.Va. once had a vigorous undergraduate nuclear engineering degree program, but the market for nuclear engineers started falling.
“During the late ’80s, the market went to zero, and we got rid of the undergraduate program. It was too expensive to maintain,” Aylor says.
Nonetheless, Mark Pierson, director of the nuclear engineering program at Virginia Tech, says that Virginia is still very oriented toward nuclear power.
About a third of the power generated in Virginia comes from nuclear facilities, according to Dominion Virginia Power.
Moreover, Pierson says that Newport News Shipbuilding constructs all of the Navy’s nuclear power aircraft carriers and, in conjunction with General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division in Connecticut, all of its nuclear submarines.
Virginia Tech offers only master’s and doctoral degrees in nuclear engineering, but Pierson says the university is developing an undergraduate minor in the field.
At the behest and with the support of the industry, Virginia Commonwealth University’s engineering school has embraced nuclear engineering, offering what the school says is the most comprehensive program in the state.
According to the school’s website, about 65 students are enrolled in the undergraduate nuclear engineering track and about 25 graduate students are enrolled in master’s and doctoral programs.
“Nuclear engineering is one of our star programs. Remember, nuclear engineering impacts not only the power industry but also the health-care industry,” VCU School of Engineering Dean Barbara Boyan says in an email.
With the VCU Medical Center less than two miles away, the School of Engineering has a strong biomedical engineering program, Boyan says, and the school is developing one of the nation’s first programs in pharmaceutical engineering.
The goal of that program, Boyan says, is “providing technologically advanced methods for manufacturing the drugs that will be needed globally, and at the same time bring the industry back to the U.S. and to the commonwealth.”
The dean notes that adding a new program is often more difficult than ending one, because new programs can require new faculty and equipment or investments to kick-start research.
Modeling and simulation
At the Batten College of Engineering & Technology at Old Dominion University, Dean Oktay Baysal says that sometimes a sudden opportunity will dictate a program that had not been considered before.
Baysal said that when the U.S. Joint Forces Command was established in Hampton Roads — it has since closed — the school of engineering saw an opportunity to gain expertise in modeling and simulation, which the military uses for virtual training and engagement exercises.
In 2010, Batten School created the first undergraduate modeling, simulation and visualization engineering program in the U.S. to complement existing graduate programs.
“Nothing happens without resistance,” Baysal says, noting that ODU officials had to sell the program to SCHEV to gain approval.
“They said, ‘What is this? We’ve never heard of it,’” Baysal recalled.
In 2013, ODU graduated its first class of engineering students in modeling, simulation and visualization.
Baysal says there are thousands of open jobs for engineers with that degree, and the applications can range from the military to health care to transportation.
West Virginia partnership
If Virginia students still want to earn a degree in petroleum engineering, they might want to apply to West Virginia University.
West Virginia is the closest state that offers the degree participating in the Academic Common Market (ACM).
The ACM is a tuition-savings program administered by the Southern Regional Education Board and 16 member states, including Virginia. The arrangement allows students to pay in-state tuition rates at out-of-state schools if they are enrolled in certain programs not available in their home state.
Ryan Sigler, coordinator of enrollment management at WVU’s Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, says enrollment in its petroleum and natural gas engineering program has jumped 79 percent in the past five years (from 150 students in 2009 to 269 students in 2014).
“Our students … are highly recruited both nationally and internationally with an average starting salary this year of $87,500,” Sigler says.