It was about 2002 that Montana Tech began to see a spike in interest in its petroleum engineering program. Drilling activity in the Elm Coulee was a spark for it. In 2002, the department had an enrollment of 130 students. By 2005, we were seeing increases of 10-15% per year.
In 2011 Montana Tech had grown to be 8th in size out of 19 US undergraduate petroleum engineering schools. And this fall, we're at an all-time high enrollment of 350 students seeking degrees in petroleum engineering.
In today’s economy, students are probably seeing the benefits of training in something that has practical application and a healthy job market, and for the foreseeable future, the oil and gas sector isn’t going anywhere.
High school students are also influenced by what they see. I went to high school in a western Dakota town of 1500 people, of whom about 15 were doctors at our regional medical center. Unsurprisingly, there was a steady stream of graduates from our high school who went on to medical school at a rate far above that of most rural towns.
Likewise, having the Bakken booming in the eastern part of the state is going to get many enterprising students to thinking -- if truck drivers are making up to $100K a year, there are probably jobs to be had in a booming oil industry that require college educations. And indeed, Heath states that 40% of their students are from right here in Montana, with most of the rest being from the greater region surrounding Montana. There are additional advantages for companies who recruit the typical Montana Tech student:
They've grown up outdoors. They come, a lot of them, from a background of doing hard work outside. They have an appreciation of the land, and they are comfortable around machinery. And they know if they do the work here, they can find a good job somewhere.
Heath does point out that most of the entry-level jobs in petroleum engineering are going to be at regional offices, and not in Montana, so the opportunities they create are pathways of success for their students, but not necessarily ways of allowing students to stay or return here. Still, it is a net positive for Montana Tech and its students to benefit from the attention the Bakken activity has stirred up. As a final note, Montana Tech is also involved in some research projects in Montana’s portion of the Bakken -- another way in which the school is tapping into the boom.