I have sent a slightly edited version of this to the newspaper editor .. maybe it will be published, maybe not ;)
The price of crude oil and of gasoline at the pump have been tumbling down to levels that most of us would not have thought possible. Eight years ago, a barrel of petroleum was selling in the global marketplace at $147 and experts predicted that soon it would reach a stratospheric $200 per barrel. Yet, since the new year dawned, it has been a story of how low can you go, with experts wondering whether it might even get closer to $20, and when it eventually goes up if $50 might become the ceiling price.
A belief that oil prices would only climb forever also propelled large enrollment increases in petroleum engineering. The near-guarantee of well-paying jobs lured young people to the discipline. But, over the past few months, the news reports have been less than encouraging. “Petroleum engineering degrees seen going from boom to bust” was CNBC’s report. The Wall Street Journal asked, “Who Will Hire a Petroleum Engineer Now?” The trade publication, Oil and Gas Investor, discussed enrollment declines in US petroleum engineering degree programs.
Of course, this is not new, but is a repetition. The oil price crash of the 1980s led to significant enrollment declines in those degree programs. By the end of the 1980s, only about 1,400 students were majoring in petroleum engineering programs across the country. As oil price rose, and as it stayed in the hundred-dollar range, enrollment soared to more than 11,000. But, with the recent oil price collapse, “petroleum engineering degrees will lose attractiveness in the years to come" said Penn State University’s Turgay Ertekin, according to Oil and Gas Investor.
There is an important lesson here, above and beyond oil price and enrollment in petroleum engineering. We live in a world where economic activities cannot be predicted with any sense of accuracy. As Yogi Berra said, it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. What might be the price of oil a few months from now, leave alone a few years from now, is unknown. It is not merely about the resource. We need to think about the technological changes that the future will bring, the geopolitical issues, the overall health of the global economy, and more, which make predictions highly suspect.
Students pursuing any field of study, including petroleum engineering, need to understand that the economic conditions of today and, therefore, the implications for jobs, is not the best indicator to prepare for the economic conditions and jobs for a few years down the road. Even four years make a huge difference—the freshman students who started on petroleum engineering four years ago face a reality now that is very different, a reality where perhaps half of them might not find jobs in the oil and natural gas industry.
Students and universities betting on “employable” majors based on current characteristics of the economy are betting against the only thing that we know for sure—the future will not be the same as today. The bets get riskier as we head into the future years. From steel workers to office secretaries and engineers, the experience of the past years has been that jobs can disappear in a hurry, leaving them worrying about their futures.
What can the young do then, and what should the universities do for the young? As the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) wonderfully put it, the challenge is “Educating for a World of Unscripted Problems.” Unscripted because we do not know what the future holds. But, we do have a sense of how we might be able to reasonably prepare for that future, by developing skills that will help people to constructively engage with the unscripted problems.
Yet, contemporary public policy discussions on higher education and workforce preparation rarely ever go into serious and sustained thinking about the “world of unscripted problems.” When, for instance, a semiconductor manufacturing company comes to town, we incorrectly believe we need more engineers and material scientists, only to realize a few years later—as was the case with Hynix—that the entire factory could close down. We seem to only consider the latest fad, without preparing for the longer-term uncertain future.
It is not that the petroleum engineering graduates will be jobless and unemployable. If their universities have educated them well for a “world of unscripted problems,” then those students will have skill sets that they will be able to apply but in industries completely different from what they had originally aimed for. If only we can use this example to understand that higher education is more than about a major and is, instead, about preparing for a “world of unscripted problems.”