Thursday, November 6, 2008

Demography, geoscience jobs, and crystal-ball gazing

When I got the latest Geoscience Currents from AGI, I immediately printed it out and hung it on the wall in the geology majors' study room.

Here's why:

AGI collected information from a variety of groups that keep track of various employed geoscientists and graphed their membership by age. (They don't have information from any mining industry groups; SEG in this case is the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, not the Society of Economic Geologists.) Hydrologists are the only group that has significant numbers of 40-something geoscientists; my generation was not hired to work for the oil & gas industry.

I hung up the page because of this line from it: The majority of geoscientists in the workforce are within 15 years of retirement age. But after I hung it up, I wondered about the assumptions being made about future employment opportunities.

When I was a senior in college, I had The Conversation with my academic advisor: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" He suggested that I go to graduate school. His generation had been hired to educate the Baby Boomers, he said, and his generation was going to retire soon. There would be lots of academic jobs to replace people like him. If I went to grad school then, in 1989, I would get done just in time.

I did go straight to grad school, though I would have taken a job if I had found one. But when I graduated, jobs were hard to come by. I know a lot of talented geology grad students who left the field after their post-docs went nowhere. My advisor's generation did retire, yes, but there were many more grad students than there were retirements. And there weren't many jobs in industry, and the USGS wasn't hiring, and academic departments were being closed.

The situation for industry jobs now may be different. There are far fewer undergrad geology majors than there were in the early 1980's. The supply of young geologists may very well be lower than the demand.

But it's a matter of supply and demand, not of needing to replace the exact number of geologists who are about to retire. How many geologists will the oil & gas industry need for the next thirty years? What if oil production has peaked? What if concerns about global climate change combined with high oil prices drives a shift to different energy sources? How many geologists will oil & gas need during busts? How many will the mining industry need? (And what will they be mining?) My Magic Garnet Ball isn't clear enough to tell. (Stupid inclusions.)

I know that "the market" is taking a beating right now, but I still look to it for signals that industry really needs geologists. Are people being hired with bachelor's degrees? What are they making for salaries? Are companies offering to pay students to go to grad school, or do they expect students to prepare themselves for a job that may or may not be there in two or three years? Are PhDs with some industry experience getting new jobs when they are laid off (and how long does it take to find a new job)?

I've adjusted the things I cover in structural geology to try to fit the needs of students who might work in groundwater, in oil, or in mining. I want my students to be ready to take jobs if they are available. But I wonder whether we are being honest about the future. I can't predict the stock market... and geology jobs are as much at the mercy of economics as other jobs are.

Edit: Andrew at discussed a related article in GSA Today here. (The GSA Today article discusses the age distribution of GSA member, and has as a take-home message that my generation of geologists needs to take over leadership roles in geoscience organizations. The Structure/Tectonics Division of GSA has had multiple volunteers for leadership positions from my generation in the past two years, at least. My generation of academics is barely post-tenure, though, despite being old-school already. We're not used to people taking us seriously.)


ScienceWoman said...

I'd suggest that the geoscience job market is more volatile than many other fields. One only needs to look at the second graph to see the boom and bust in the hiring cycle for petroleum. Similarly, GW remediation jobs had their peak in the early 90s and now the hydro jobs are shifting more to water quantity issues. (See the excellent Science focus piece from August) So not only are we subject to the ups and downs of the economy, but the type of geologist in demand is constantly shifting. And I'm not sure our curriculum can (or should?) keep up.

BrianR said...

I work in petroleum and my company has essentially stopped hiring inexperienced grads ... for now. But, this is just one company ... I'm not sure what the composite trend would be.

Even if oil production has peaked (which is still debatable), we'll need geologists in this industry for decades to come. How many, as you ask, is the key question. I think carbon capture and storage will be a reality in a decade or two ... I can't see anyway around it ... that process/industry will need geologists as well.

Anonymous said...

A relatively senior BP person is teaching a class I have the fortune to audit here. He told us at one point that the horizon isn't 15 years. He said it's 5-10 years, because the soon-to-be-retired have to spend multiple years training and mentoring to develop reasonably competent successors.

Thus the petroleum industry, overall, is still in a bit of a hiring boom because 3-5 years training is only barely sufficient to get people developed before 55-65 years old disappear, taking their knowledge and experience with them.

Silver Fox said...

Right now there is a bit of a slump in some parts of the mining industry because funding has become tight and some metal prices and company stock prices are down (some are way down), making it harder than usual to raise any capital or to maintain in-flow of money from producing mines. There have been some projects slowed, put on hold, or shut down, and at least a few layoffs. I don't know if gold has been affected - I'll find out soon, though!

This recent change has been faster than any other slow-down probably since the 30's. Most people I know expect a fairly rapid turn-around, within a few months to a year, depending on the projects or companies, but it could all change for the better or worse as quickly as within a week. Mining won't stop, though, and so geologists will be needed.

The mining industry has barely touched the re-training issue. Although I know a few geologists who have within the last 10 years gotten jobs in the mining industry straight out of undergrad school (I know 3-4, all but one in Canada), it has not ever been a standard practice, because most companies prefer people who have started to specialize by getting an M.S. I still strongly recommend a second degree.

There is often talk at meetings I go to about the baby boom not retiring at all. It's tongue-in-cheek, but there may be some truth to it. ;)

The curves don't appear to be showing geologists working in environmental fields. It would be interesting to know about that, the overall numbers and distribution. Some mining exploration geologists (baby boom era) moved into environmental in the late 80's to early 90's, and younger geologists have been going in that direction - but my info is all anecdotal.

I think it might be hard to train undergrads for particular fields, so good fundamentals would seem the best - and I'm sure you must already being doing that!

The first work motto I learned, back in the late 70's, was "It's all changed now!"

CJR said...

From a couple of conversations I had at AAPG, the credit crunch has thrown a real spanner in the works, with lots of projects being put "on hold"... that's probably going to lead to a rather contracted market in the short term, even though that will have a further negative impact on the demographic trends you're talking about.

BrianR said...

Chris is right on ... this widespread and serious economic downturn (which has really just begun!) is wreaking havoc on project management ... what prospects to chase, what to put on hold, where to put resources/staff, and so on.

As economists have been saying ... this recession will be global and will affect EVERYTHING.

Nick said...

I had the pleasure of receiving my undergrad degree from Kim. I jumped at the chance to get a job in the industry as soon as possible. I know that I probably will not get that upper level job at a major oil company without more school, but right now I am more than happy working for a very small independent operator. I am placing my eggs in the experience I am receiving now, but will never rule out more school in the future.

I understand that many of my professors and their peers could not find jobs when they were coming out of college, but as of today there is a huge lack of younger blood in all of geology. I have to go out and look for people 35 and under. I have felt some anger towards the oil industry from professors, and I believe that may come from the lack of hiring when they needed a job. I hope that college professors whether they are undergrad or grad, will put all the options on the table and let the student decide where they want to go.

Kim said...

I've recently been encouraging students to look at mining and oil & gas jobs, because a number of recent students have gotten good jobs straight out of undergrad. (Nick is one, but he's not alone. I can think of at least three people in oil & gas, five in mining, and one in coal. And that's not counting this year's group of students who worked as interns before their junior year.) But I wonder just how far I should go encouraging people - I doubt that we could estimate future demand for geologists by simply finding the area under the curve. (Hey, calculus application: integrate the function of geologists vs age from age 55 to infinity.)

The current recession makes it hard to judge exactly what parts of the economy are going to need people in the future. I will probably go back to my old standby: make sure you can write, do math, and solve problems, and be ready to learn new skills in the future.