A petroleum engineer is involved in nearly all of the stages of oil and gas field evaluation, development and production. Their aim is to maximise hydrocarbon recovery at minimum cost, while maintaining a strong emphasis on reducing environmental impact.

Types of petroleum engineer

Petroleum engineers are divided into several groups:

  • Petroleum geologists: who find hydrocarbons by analysing subsurface structures with geological and geophysical methods.
  • Reservoir engineers: who work to optimise production of oil and gas via proper well placement, production levels and enhanced oil recovery techniques. They use computer simulations to assist in the identification of risks and to make forecasts on reservoir potential.
  • Production engineers: who manage the interface between the reservoir and the well through such tasks as perforations, sand control, artificial lift, downhole flow control and downhole monitoring equipment. They also select surface equipment that separates the produced fluids (oil, natural gas and water).
  • Drilling engineers: who manage the technical aspects of drilling both production and injection wells. They work in multidisciplinary teams alongside other engineers, scientists, drilling teams and contractors.

Responsibilities

The actual tasks carried out vary depending on the specific role but may include:

  • liaising with geoscientists, production and reservoir engineers and commercial managers to interpret well-logging results and predict production potential;
  • compiling detailed development plans of reservoir performance using mathematical models;
  • selecting optimal tubing size and suitable equipment in the well for different functions;
  • designing the completion - the part of the well that communicates with the reservoir rock and fluids;
  • designing systems that help the well to flow, for example using submersible pumps;
  • managing problems of fluid behaviour and production chemistry;
  • evaluating and recommending flow rate enhancement by using, for example, hydraulic fracturing (to force fluid into a well and fracture the rock) and acid treatment (to erode the rock and improve flow path);
  • managing and controlling wells with branches at the bottom (horizontal and multilateral wells);
  • using well and reservoir remote sensing technology and surveillance data to manage the value of the reservoir and decide on appropriate engineering interventions;
  • understanding and managing how a set of wells interact;
  • managing contractor relationships in relation to health, safety and environmental performance;
  • supervising well-site operations personnel and managing staff at all levels, including the training and supervision of crew members, to ensure that everyone works as a team in order to meet deadlines to clients' satisfaction;
  • liaising with separate departments to ensure correct progress with projects;
  • taking responsibility for the maintenance of equipment;
  • liaising with clients to keep them informed of progress.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for petroleum engineers are in the region of £25,000 to £35,000. Salaries at the higher end of the scale are available to those with a relevant PhD. These figures relate to international oil company graduate training programmes; salaries in smaller companies are likely to be lower.
  • With experience, petroleum engineers can expect to earn £55,000 to £95,000. When there is the demand, experienced freelance engineers may earn over £1,000 per day.

Location and assignments influence salary. Additional and generous benefits packages and overseas allowances may be available. Pay is performance-related and you may receive bonuses for offshore work.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are mainly 9am to 5pm but often include some extra hours. Major companies typically offer flexible working patterns. Offshore assignments require shift work, usually 12 hours on and 12 hours off continuously for two weeks, followed by a two to three-week break onshore.

What to expect

  • It is usual for newly recruited engineers to spend most of the time at the rigsite for their first two to three years in the job. Once you have gained experience the work is mainly office-based and involves working closely with geologists on oilfield developments. Senior engineers are based mainly onshore.
  • Remote sensing technology, coupled with high bandwidth global networks and visualisation systems, allow more work to be done with fewer people in the field and more decisions made in an office, based on measurements sent in real time from the rig. This development is sometimes known as the 'digital oilfield'.
  • Self-employment or freelance work is sometimes possible. Outsourcing has generated opportunities for engineers with at least five years of experience. Contracts are determined by project status and oil prices.
  • Only a small proportion of petroleum engineers are women but an increasing number are being recruited.
  • The oilfield is a broad mix of cultures and backgrounds. Offshore work involves communal living, though living and leisure facilities are generally very good. Elsewhere, field work may sometimes involve living in inhospitable conditions.
  • The work can be both physically and mentally demanding. The onshore/offshore regime can create extra pressures, particularly to family and social life.
  • Exploration and production working conditions could prove extremely difficult for certain disabled graduates, but there are equivalent opportunities in shore-based seismic analysis, geology, process engineering or related areas.
  • Travel within a working day, overnight absence from home and overseas work or travel are all regular features of the job with a change of location often required at short notice.

Qualifications

Employers look for relevant degree subjects such as physical, mathematical or applied sciences and engineering. In particular, the following subjects may increase your chances of securing a job:

  • aeronautical engineering;
  • astrophysics;
  • chemical engineering;
  • civil engineering;
  • earth sciences;
  • mathematics;
  • mechanical engineering;
  • petroleum engineering.

First degrees in petroleum engineering are offered at some universities but employers are interested in recruiting from all of the specialisms listed above. The Heriot-Watt Institute of Petroleum Engineering has a large base of research activity and offers Masters courses and distance learning.

Entry with an HND or foundation degree only is not usually possible. Most company recruitment policies specify graduate or postgraduate-level qualifications, combined with the requisite personal attributes.

Postgraduate study is not always essential, although it may increase your chances. Some employers may ask for a postgraduate qualification in petroleum engineering. Entry on to such courses may be possible with a good numerate degree, as long as an interest in the petroleum engineering industry can be proven.

Skills

You will need to show evidence of the following:

  • technical capability;
  • strong business awareness;
  • analytical and creative skills;
  • managerial potential;
  • the ability to motivate staff at all levels;
  • the ability to work internationally and in offshore environments;
  • teamworking skills;
  • drive and enthusiasm;
  • the ability to solve complex problems, regardless of location and circumstances;
  • willingness to tackle engineering challenges;
  • flexibility and the ability to work on a range of projects;
  • computer literacy.

Work experience

Competition is very keen. Vacation work with an oil or gas operator or service companies will improve your chances.

Employers

Oil and gas exploration is an international activity and many jobs are based overseas. In the extraction phase, recruitment and training patterns and job titles vary from company to company.

For example, some employers do not distinguish at entry level between petroleum, drilling and support engineering. Instead, they prefer to recruit people with wide potential and deploy them after training where individual preference and company need coincide.

The work of a petroleum engineer can take you all over the world, from Africa to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Employment is usually in one of the following settings:

  • operating or producing companies, especially a large international oil company, although some are smaller and less well-known;
  • engineering consultancies;
  • integrated service providers, providing staff in varied disciplines;
  • specialist drilling contractors, from multinationals to one-person companies, who undertake drilling work on an international scale.

A number of new entrants join oil and gas operating companies. However, service companies are gradually taking on more of the work traditionally done by operators.

Oil companies vary in size from multinationals to small, nationally based groups. They tend to own or lease exploration permits, decide where to drill, monitor the drilling and run the production facilities. Owing to the specialised nature of the business, contractors do much of the actual drilling and construction work.

Recruitment can be sensitive to global political and economic pressures. Wars, or the rumours of war, can affect prices on the world's market, as much as the effects of supply and demand, but in a more unpredictable way. Inevitably, the market price of a commodity influences investment in the exploration and development of new sources of supply. These factors can have a direct effect on employment, leading to fluctuating demand at short notice for qualified people.

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Recruitment agencies commonly handle vacancies. See entries in specialist press.

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Professional development

Large organisations typically recruit candidates annually onto graduate training programmes. They also have ongoing recruitment programmes aimed at graduates with more than five years of relevant experience. Trainees in large organisations based in the UK can expect to work on projects in other countries as part of their training programme.

Training opportunities vary and are determined by the company's needs and the individual's career plans. Programmes may last up to three years and usually include exposure to several different departments, working on a variety of tasks.

Companies usually provide on-the-job training, as well as formal courses to supplement practical offshore/field experience and develop core skills. Trainees also normally have access to personal mentoring and a 'buddy' system for work and career advice.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is supported and allows graduates to build networks with international colleagues. Study facilities are available offshore on oil platforms.

There is a strong emphasis on working towards obtaining chartered engineer status with the relevant professional engineering institutions, such as the:

For further information on skills, training and workforce development, see:

Career prospects

Oil output is forecast to continue to rise over the next few years, although it is affected by economic conditions. There has also been a reduction in the number of significant new oilfield discoveries and an increased cost of extracting the remaining oil from established fields, which adds pressures to the industry.

Career development opportunities are promising, as many companies are recruiting an increasing amount of new graduate engineers with the aim of promoting those who show the most potential.

Many first appointments are in the field and require people who are physically fit and geographically mobile. This means not only being prepared to go anywhere in the world, but also being able to stay in that location for the duration of the project. If you are unable to relocate, your chances of securing a job or subsequent promotions will be reduced.

On completion of a training programme, graduates may progress from primarily technical roles, through the promotion structure, to highly regarded and well-paid senior technical appointments.

Others opt for commercial roles in areas such as recruitment or marketing, or in leadership and management.

Senior roles can include asset team leadership, business planning and analysis, non-operated joint ventures (NOJV), asset management, operations supervising and environmental, safety, fire, health and project management.