Drilling engineers are vital to the petroleum industry, managing the safe and efficient drilling of wells to procure oil or gas
A drilling engineer develops, plans, costs and supervises the operations necessary for drilling oil and gas wells. They are involved from the initial well design to testing, completion and abandonment.
Engineers can be employed on land, on offshore platforms or on mobile drilling units either by the operating oil company, a specialist drilling contractor or a service company.
The role can involve administering drilling and service contracts, engineering design, the planning of wells and supervising the drilling crew on site.
Drilling engineers work with other professionals, such as geologists and geoscientists, to monitor drilling progress, oversee safety management and ensure the protection of the environment.
The role of a drilling engineer can vary depending on the employer but tasks often include:
- preparing well data sheets
- designing and selecting well-head equipment
- drawing up drilling programmes, taking account of desired production flow rates
- obtaining relevant data, carrying out engineering analysis on site and recommending necessary actions and writing up reports
- monitoring the daily progress of well operations
- keeping track of current daily costs, comparing actual costs with expenditure proposals and recommending cost-effective changes
- liaising with specialist contractors and suppliers, such as cement companies or suppliers of drilling fluids
- monitoring safety and ensuring the good maintenance of the well
- adhering to environmental protection standards, in some cases through direct discussion with local governments to ensure compliance with legislative requirements
- establishing and administering drilling and service contracts
- coordinating and supervising the work of the drilling team
- undertaking engineering design and the planning of wells (including development work)
- designing directional well paths (horizontally or multi-laterally, as appropriate)
- managing operations on behalf of small clients
- contributing to conceptual field development design
- working with multidisciplinary professionals to evaluate the commercial viability of the well and monitor progress during drilling
- returning the site to its natural environmental setting if drilling is not to be pursued.
- Starting salaries are around £25,000 to £45,000.
- With experience and an increased level of responsibility, drilling engineers could earn between £40,000 and £100,000. Salaries vary depending on the size of your employer.
Location and assignments influence salary. Additional benefits and overseas allowances may be available. Oil drilling takes place in some dangerous areas of the world. In these situations, extra payments may be made.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
In the North Sea, offshore working hours are normally 12 hours on and 12 hours off continuously for two weeks, followed by a break ashore of two to three weeks.
You may be summoned to work on a rig at short notice.
If you work overseas you might work 'on rotation', spending up to two months onsite followed by a break of one month at home.
What to expect
- You will often be required to work offshore or in remote areas, but office-based roles are available too.
- Oil exploration is an international activity and the work of a drilling engineer can take you all over the world, from Africa to Eastern Europe to the Middle East.
- The work on offshore rigs is physically demanding, often undertaken in dirty, wet and noisy conditions. The weather may also be unpleasant.
- Living conditions on most rigs are very comfortable. Rigs usually accommodate 50 to 100 people. Rooms are compact and are frequently shared with a colleague working the opposite 12-hour shift, so you will rarely see your roommate. All meals and laundry services are provided. Regular facilities include a gym and snooker room with access to computers and DVDs. Alcohol is prohibited on the rig.
- If carrying out offshore work, you will need to be prepared to accept considerable disruption to your personal and home life. Communal living with the same set of people means you need to get on well with others, both in and outside the work situation.
- Travel to different rigs by helicopter is normal (sometimes at short notice), so flexibility is required and travel to sites in other parts of the world can be complex and difficult.
- The work could be difficult for entrants with a physical disability as all offshore rig personnel must pass tests of physical fitness, survival and escape from a submerged helicopter but you should speak to potential employers about your situation.
- Self-employment or freelance work on contract is possible, although the majority of drilling engineers work for an employer.
- A low proportion of women currently work in this profession but the numbers are increasing.
This area of work is open to all engineering graduates, but certain subjects may improve your chances of securing work. These include:
- aeronautical engineering
- chemical engineering
- civil or structural engineering
- marine engineering
- mechanical engineering
- minerals engineering
- mining or petroleum engineering.
A degree in geology or natural sciences may also be useful. A good first degree (minimum 2:1) is usually required for entry to major oil companies' graduate training programmes, and undergraduate Masters (MEng) degrees are valued.
Entry with a HND alone is not possible.
A relevant pre-entry postgraduate qualification, such as an MSc in petroleum or offshore engineering, can be useful and may help to lead on to more senior roles. However, it is not a guarantee of a job and you should try to look for what potential employers require before committing to a course.
Search for postgraduate courses in offshore engineering.
Pre-entry experience is not essential, but any experience working on rigs or in an onshore yard is likely to be useful and demonstrate your interest and motivation. You may find initial entry to the industry easier as a mudlogger before moving up the ranks to a drilling engineer.
Given the international nature of the work, basic knowledge of foreign languages may be an asset.
You will need to have:
- strong communication and interpersonal skills, as well as the ability to build and maintain relationships with a range of people
- a good technical understanding of the scientific principles of disciplines such as geology, physics, maths and chemistry
- a high level of numeracy and IT skills
- the analytical ability to think through potentially complex problems and develop solutions
- initiative and drive
- teamwork skills and the ability to cooperate with others
- sensitivity to different cultures and ways of working
- the ability to work under pressure.
Some major oil companies and contractors offer placements during the summer holiday of your penultimate year, where you can work on a project of operational significance. Successful completion of the project and the chance to network with people in the field may provide good contacts when looking for work after graduation.
Major oil companies can advertise vacancies almost a year in advance, but it is also worth making speculative applications to specialist companies directly.
Recruitment is affected by oil price fluctuations. Despite the declining North Sea oil reserves, drilling specialists are in high demand in the UK, as well as the rest of the world.
The exploration and extraction business is worldwide. Many of the jobs are based overseas, so major employers recruit internationally. Many applicants come from the United States and Europe, where university education lasts longer and a higher degree is the normal qualification for entry to a professional career.
In the UK, activity is currently located mainly off the east coast of England and Scotland, but exploration is also being carried out in the western approaches, the Irish Sea and west of the Shetlands.
Typical employers include:
- oil operation and production companies, especially large international oil companies, although some are smaller and less well-known
- engineering consultancies
- integrated service providers, which provide staff in varied disciplines
- specialist drilling contractors, which undertake drilling work on an international scale and often operate and maintain their own mobile drilling rigs.
Recruitment, training patterns and job titles vary from company to company; this is particularly true with regard to the extraction phase. For example, some employers do not distinguish at entry level between petroleum, drilling and support engineering. Instead, preferring to recruit people with wide potential and deploy them after training where individual preference and company need coincide.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Earthworks Jobs
- Oil and Gas People
- Careers sections of major oil and gas companies' websites may list details of graduate recruitment schemes as well as other jobs.
You may find recruitment agencies a helpful source of temporary and permanent jobs. It is also worth sending speculative applications to specialist companies.
For appropriate contacts check out the:
Major oil companies have well-established graduate training programmes. These programmes help drilling engineers meet the requirements of the professional engineering institutions in order to gain chartered engineer (CEng) status through bodies such as:
- Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE)
- Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3)
- Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE)
A mentoring scheme is often available to allow new graduates to access the advice and professional support of more senior engineers.
Those companies which do not have graduate programmes will provide formal training in areas specific to the job. More general training in skills such as people management may also be available. Engineers will be expected to learn through practical rig-site experience.
Continuing professional development (CPD) is supported at a variety of locations, allowing graduates to build networks with international colleagues. Study facilities are available offshore on oil platforms.
If you are working for a smaller company, you may find that you need to take responsibility for arranging and funding your own development and training, especially if you are employed on a temporary contract.
Safety and survival training is obligatory. This usually takes three to five days and is carried out at specialist training facilities in Aberdeen. The course covers first aid, survival training, general safety and environmental awareness.
Participants must pass an underwater helicopter escape course, which involves submersion and escape from an upturned helicopter simulator.
If you begin your career with one of the large oil companies, you may initially manage a single well under supervision. However, fairly quickly, you could become responsible for wells involving budgets of £5 to £10 million.
As you gain in experience and seniority, you could take on the overall supervision for the drilling and production operations on several wells, initially offshore and then moving onshore.
Typically, training programmes last up to five years. You will usually be expected to change jobs or projects every 18 months to two years, which may also mean changing location.
Career progression in oil companies is usually into management. However, with drilling contractor work, engineers tend to remain in a technical role, using their expertise to access and develop the most appropriate technology for drilling in the future.
Independent consultancy is another option, although you will need to work hard to balance the good times with the less prosperous periods.
A typical career path could involve working for two to four years offshore or on an onshore wellsite and then moving into an office-based design role. This path might eventually lead to working in an overseas office following a one month on, one month off pattern.
Drilling is the aspect of oil exploration most affected by the economic climate, which may affect opportunities for career development. Activity is in response to the decisions of the oil companies as to where drilling will take place.
Other similar roles to that of drilling engineer include cementing/stimulation engineer, completion engineer and subsea engineer.