Ceramic pall ringAre you thinking about taking up a Geology major in college? It is not a bad course, and prospects are pretty good overall. Employment opportunities look pretty solid for the next few decades, strongly supported by world economic fundamentals. After all, geologists are the people who find new deposits of oil, gas, metals and minerals – all of them raw materials in great demand from both developed countries (e.g. the USA and Europe) and developing countries (especially China and India). The major employers of geologists are the government sector, the mining industry and the oil/gas industry.

So, what is a geologist’ salary on an oilrig? According to a 2008 survey by American Geologic Institute, it ranges from $80,000 to $100,000 for a fresh Geology graduate with a relevant Masters degree. Another survey by the University of Houston in 2007 indicated that experienced petroleum geologists (10 years and up) earn an average salary of $132,132 a year. Those are increases of 50% for new geologists on offshore oil platforms and 23% for experienced geologists prospecting for oil since 2003/2004. This is a salary range that can turn the CEOs of many small companies green with envy.

But it is now the summer of 2010 and we have just exited one major recession and hit a major bump in the road because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Surely there must be some impact for a geologists working offshore? Well, if you are graduating (or a veteran looking for a new employer) today, there will probably be some artificial downward pressure on your pay. But seriously, the demand for oil workers and people who can find oil is not dependent on the short-term status of the economy. The demand for skilled geologists and other rig workers has historically depended on the price of oil. Just look at the Roaring ’80s, where the economy was booming but the price of oil was low. Oil companies and drilling contractors were laying off workers left and right. Look at our recent recession for an example of the opposite – the price of oil remained strong ($60 to $70 per barrel) despite the weak economy. Although they laid off workers on less productive land-based oil fields, they hired workers for newer and more lucrative offshore oil fields.

Fundamentally, there are three major reasons why a geologist will still continue to earn the big bucks for the next 10, 20 or even 30 years. The first is that it is difficult to train a good geologist. 20,000 students enrol in Geology each year, but only 2,800 graduate with the needed specialties to look for oil. Geology is a four-year course, and it is not easy to pass. Besides, a field geologist is not someone who lives above the clouds in an ivory tower. He is, frequently, someone who must travel long distances, face both man-made and natural danger, and work in difficult situations. In some ways, he is closer to Indiana Jones (except with a Geology degree instead of an Archaeology degree) than he is to Einstein.

A second major reason for the continued strong demand for Geology graduates is that many old, experienced oil geologists are now in their 40s, 50s or 60s. The previously cited University of Houston survey also discovered that 72% of oil workers are above 40. Most of them were last hired in the last oil boom in the 1970s, and are the survivors of the oil glut of the 1980s. Those who left the oil industry went to more stable government jobs (or to work for the mining companies) in the mass lay-offs. Any good oil company CEO knows that a good petroleum geologist who can find him a new oil field is worth as much as the Marketing director or Finance Director.

The third big reason is that oil is an important fuel and raw material for modern plastics, etc. Even if greener technologies (e.g. hydroelectricity, solar panels and wind turbines) overtake oil in importance, there is no replacement for the use of oil to create all the different kinds of plastic in use today. By the way, if you are so worried about green energy supplanting oil, consider these facts:

– Solar panels are made of plastic (synthesized from petroleum) and silicon;
– The bodies of wind turbines are largely made of plastic;
– The heavy vehicles and equipment used for building hydroelectric dams, mining aluminium (for wind turbine blades) and silicon (for solar panels) are usually diesel-powered;
– The trains, ships and trucks used to move the raw materials (e.g. aluminium and silicon) from the mines to the factory for processing all run on diesel.

Basically, good petroleum geologists are in great demand. Among their most important duties is helping to find new sources of oil. Their salaries will remain high for a good, long time to come.