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Extra Credit PUBLIC ACCESS

Thanks to an Innovative Program, Engineering Students Get a Look at State-of-the-Art Facilities.

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Associate Editor.

Mechanical Engineering 129(11), 32-35 (Nov 01, 2007) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2007-NOV-3

This article focuses on petroleum industry that is on the cusp of an incredible youth movement. It is because of the steep run-up in oil prices in the past few years, which has created a demand for engineers who can tap into the increasingly hard-to-reach fields. Halliburton has invested in simulator training facilities and creating a space on the Internet for workers in the field to share best practices. The goal is to have a consistent level of quality through the organization. With the average petroleum engineer closing in on retirement age, the students in Camp Bevo are going to be decision makers very early in their careers. Forming a positive impression now could reap enormous benefits for Halliburton down the line. It is a strategy that consumer products companies have long known—early brand associations can be the most enduring.

The drilling rig stands tall amid the hills of western Oklahoma. There's serious business going on here: Skilled workers are tending the machinery, pulling up long pipes that are stacked neatly at the base of the rig and threading them deftly into the ever-deepening shaft. The sound of the operation is deafening, mixing the whine of three electrical generators and the occasional squeal of metal rubbing against metal.

You can tell who does what by the color of the hardhat. The white hardhats work for Marathon Oil, which owns this site. The 30-some green hardhats are visitors-green means greenhorn part of a delegation of students and professors from the University of Texes Department of Petroleum and Geosystms Engineering, They are here as part of Camp, Bevo, a weeklong program intended to give second-year students a feel for what it's really like to work in the oil business. For most of them, it's the first time they've been so close to an oilrig going full tilt.

The half-dozen men in the red hardhats work for Halliburton, the international oil services company. Halliburton is hosting the students, showing them various facilities around its hometown of Duncan, Okla. By the end of the week, the company will have led tours of its enormous manufacturing facility and its research and development labs. The students will have met dozens of Halliburton executives, some flown in from the company's corporate headquarters in Houston.

As the students crawl over the rig, watching the metalgo into the hole and rock-laced mud being pumped out, it's easy to grasp what the university is getting out of the deal. The students are alive with questions, and aware of the power and potential that the rig represents. Such demonsrtations are part of a concerted effort to retain more students in the petroleum engineering department in order to meet a growing demand for engineers in the oil industry.

Halliburton is getting something out of this, too, but not what one might think at first glance. Though it's a dominant player in the oil industry Halliburton itself is more likely to hire mechanical engineers than any other type.

What Halliburton sees in the students it's hosting isn't potential employees, but future clients, Thanks to demographic pressures, in 10 years' time, these petroleum engineering students-the ones wearing the green hatswill be handed the keys to the oil industry

Students from the University of Texas petroleum engineering department listen to a safety talk before climbing onto an oil drilling rig.

Grahic Jump LocationStudents from the University of Texas petroleum engineering department listen to a safety talk before climbing onto an oil drilling rig.

The petroleum industry is on the cusp of an incredible youth movement. Part of that is. because of the steep run-up in oil prices in the past few years, which has created a demand for engineers who can tap into the increasingly hard-to-reach fields.

Unfortunately, during the late 1980s and 1990s, the industry was beset by a glut of skilled workers due to a collapse in the price of oil. "There was a huge round of mergers and consolidation that put people out of work," said Tim Taylor, who worked in the industry for more than three decades. "The people who were laid off didn't come back to the industry. As a result, the average age of petroleum engineers is over 50."

When Taylor retired in 2000, he returried to Austin, where he had earned his Ph.D. in petroleum engineering, to become a professor in the petroleum engineering department. The Texas program regularly ranks in the top two in the country, but when Taylor arrived, the department was having problems retaining students. As many as 40 percent of the freshmen class switched majors before the end of the sophomore year. "The students didn't know what they wanted to do," Taylor said.

"We were losing them in that first year." Across the country, petroleum engineering programs were feeling a similar pinch. From a peak of around 11,000 in the early 1980s, enrollments declined dramatically, bottoming out at just 1,300 in the late 1990s. And while that level was sufficient for the industry during the oil bust, oil companies have begun a new burst of exploration and production now that tight supplies 'have beconie a permanent fixture. Taylor and his colleagues at Texas realized that they had to increase the number of students in the department substantially if they were going to meet the demands of industry for new engineers.

The first step was a concerted recruitment program. "We've doubled enrollment," Taylor said, adding that the department was now at the saturation point in terms of students. But it wasn't enough just to recruit more bodies; they had to retain them. Part of the effort involved a substantial increase in financial aid for students in the program, with the money coming from companies in the form of sponsored scholarships.

But one of the dissatisfactions the engineering students had with the program, Taylor said, was that there wasn't enough hands-on activity. In a sense, that's understand able: Oil facilities are, by necessity, remote and hazardous workplaces, and hard to get to during a school year crammed with courses. And while that's part of the romance that draws people into the field, the potentialliability makes companies reluctant to invite students for a look around.

It took some work, but Taylor was able to arrange for Shell to host a group of students at its offshore training facility in Louisiana during winter break and for Halliburton to host a contingent over two different weeks in the summer.

And thus Camp Bevo-named for the University of Texas longhorn mascot-was born.

The students attending Camp Bevo were able to tour many petroleum industry workplaces, such as this Marathon Oil facility in Apache, Okla.

Grahic Jump LocationThe students attending Camp Bevo were able to tour many petroleum industry workplaces, such as this Marathon Oil facility in Apache, Okla.

One morning in late May, as the second day of a new session of Camp Bevo began, Taylor chewed out the assembled students, who were expected to be in attendance a full 15 minutes before the scheduled start time of 8 0' clock. Most of the students seemed too groggy to do more than absorb the lecture, elbows on tables, heads on hands. Then the group was bundled into vans and driven to the other end of Halliburton's 320-acre campus, where the company's large manufacturing plant was located.

Halliburton prides itself on manufacturing most of its own heavy machinery, and the Duncan plant is the core of that operation. As the students stood in the lobby of the plant, the leader of the tour, Gary Strong, a mechanical engineer who serves as senior technical professional in the manufacturing center, provided the ground rules. "Don't touch anything," Strong warned. "Don't touch anything."

Staying inside the yellow lines on the floor, the small groups wandered through acres of pumps and engines and trailers, all painted Halliburton red. "We build our equipment from the ground up," Strong said over the din of the factory floor. "We build 40,000 hydraulic horsepower a month in pumps."

Maybe it was too loud or maybe it was too noisy, but hardly anyone asked questions. A quality control engineer talking about Six Sigma practices had to use M&Ms to bribe responses from the tour group. One demonstration did get tl;te students' attention- inertial welding, in which a pipe was spun up to some 3,000 revolutions per minute and then jammed into a fixture. As the pipe glowed red, Strong proudly reported that HaUiburton had never had an inertial weld fail.

For many of the students, the factory was a new experience. Many of the petroleum engineering students come from families with ties to the energy industry in Houston or Dallas. The manufacturing center, on the other hand, was the domain of mechanical engineers. There were two to three times as many MEs as any other specialty, Strong estimated.

To student Malek Lemkecher, the manufacturing center tour was a glimpse into another world. Lemkecher had chosen petroleum engineering over computer engineering because he was drawn to the skill set the oil industry demands.

After the factory tour, the students returned to the training campus for lunch. To a person, the students marveled at the facilities. Once the afternoon sessions concluded, the students took up golf on the nine-hole course or played pickup basketball until late into the evening.

The lush facility is evidence of the role that training has at Halliburton. There's a constant need for developing new skills, said J.J. J ennings, who is in charge of training operations in the Western Hemisphere for Halliburton. "We've found that the half-life for training is just five years ," Jennings said. Consequently, Jennings oversees a continual stream of workers taking refresher courses or getting acquainted with new technology. Though he is now based in Houston, he is the former head of the Duncan facility and returned to the campus for Camp Bevo. He is something of a throwback, with his hair in a flattop, and was dressed in Halliburton red coveralls as he drove a vanload of students to the Apache drilling site.

Much like Taylor,Jennings sees the industry made of two distinct generations. "There's a big gap between the Baby Boomers and the engineers with 10 years experience or less," he said. Difference isn't just in age, but also in temperament. While Baby Boomers "have a tendency to try to teach everything you have to know all at once," the younger generation is geared to learning in a just-in-time,just-as-you-need-it manner, he said. "If we don't understand how they process data," Jennings said, "we'll never get through to them."

WITH THE AVERAGE PETROLEUM ENGINEER CLOSING IN ON RETIREMENT, THE STUDENTS AT CAMP BEVO WILL BE DECISION MAKERS VERY EARLY IN THEIR CAREERS. BUT THE HARD CHOICES ARE STILL YEARS AWAY.

To that end, Halliburton has invested in simulator training facilities and creating a space on the Internet for workers in the field to share best practices. The goal is to have a consistent level of quality through the organization. "One Halliburton" is the phrase that kept being repeated during the tours. But the generational difference is also one of the underlying factors in the establishment 'of Camp Bevo: The classroom is becoming too small, too linear to hold the attention of students today.

Though Texas's Taylor boasts that Halliburton hired four of his program's graduates last year, the company has relatively few petroleum engineers on its payroll. Jennings said the company generally hires mechanical engineers or other specialists. Jennings himself isn't an engineer at all and got his start at Halliburton sweeping floors during summer break from college.

So what, exactly, is in it for Halliburton to host 30- some petroleum engineering students for a week?

"Dr. Taylor wants to broaden his students' horizon of the oil business," Jennings said. "They get a pretty good understanding of the producers' end, but they didn't have a feel for the service end. When he approached us, we realized petroleum engineers are our customers. We didn't look at this as a recruiting effort as much as it was an effort to introduce ourselves to our customers before they graduate from college."

Indeed, with the average petroleum engineer closing in on retirement age, the students in Camp Bevo are going to be decision makers very early in their careers. Forming a positive impression now could reap enormous benefits for Halliburton down the line. It's a strategy that consumer products companies have long known-early brand associations can be the most enduring.

"By the time they graduate, it's too late," Jennings continued. "And besides, we really enjoy putting this on, going out in the field with these youngsters and answering the questions they have."

Unlike the morning tour at the manufacturing center, when the students seemed disengaged, there was an air of excitement at the drilling rig that afternoon. The students were asking sharp questions, and leaned in close to hear the answers over the din of the generators. How much do the drilling bits cost? What's the diameter of the hole? Stacked around the towering rig is a million dollars of steel pipe, waiting to be pushed into the ground.

Maybe Halliburton's strategy of showing off what a top-flight services company can do will payoff in the next decade. But on the van ride back, it's too early to say just what these students will be doing then. Sitting in the back of the van, Edward Aviles, a sophomore from a suburb of Houston, ventures that he might want an office job. Ian Magin, also from outside Houston, thinks working in the field might be fun, but he's a recent transfer into the program and is still getting up to speed. The hard career choices-working for a major or an independent, abroad or stateside are still years away.

The hot Oklahoma sun sinks toward the horizon. The students relax, but their minds are still active. Some spend the hour talking about Euler series and computer modeling, and which professors are the most engaging lecturers.

Copyright © 2007 by ASME
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