HOUSTON (Reuters) - While millions of college grads look forlornly into the worst U.S. job market in decades, Emily Woner pretty much guaranteed herself one of America's best-paid post-graduate jobs before she ever set foot on campus.
Spurred by an early interest in following her father's footsteps into the oil sector, Woner secured a post-high school internship with Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy Corp (DVN.N).
After summers spent riding seismic trucks in the Barnett shale, designing water pipelines in east Texas and helping model oil reservoirs in Wyoming, she's now a 22-year-old senior at the University of Tulsa waiting to take a job in one the country's most sought-after professions: petroleum engineering.
"I'm really lucky. In my class, a lot of us are already committed to companies," Woner said.
Luck has little to do with it. Energy companies are racing to exploit America's vast shale gas and oil fields, the increasing discoveries of which has upended markets and sparked the biggest drilling boom in generations.
While Wall Street slashes the kind of banking and trading positions that were once the most coveted for top graduates, energy firms can't hire fast enough for the technical jobs that have been all but overlooked for a generation.
The shale boom has run into many obstacles: environmental concerns from earthquakes to water safety, a lack of needed materials, and logistical bottlenecks.
But the shortage of specialty engineers may prove one of the most vexing. Poaching is rife and supplies are short, putting a premium on industry veterans who know how to get the most value out of wells that can cost tens of millions of dollars to drill.
Oil companies have seen the squeeze coming for years, and -- to a degree -- the job market has responded. Bachelor's degrees in petroleum engineering trebled to over 750 since 2001.
But industry officials and analysts say it is likely still not enough for companies to maintain their ambitious growth in North American shale oil plays, Canada's oil sands, deepwater offshore Brazil, post-war Iraq and other frontiers.
At least 40 percent of the globe's petroleum engineers are expected to retire in the coming decade, according to top industry recruiters. A generation lost to the 1980s oil bust leaves a thin cadre of mid-career professionals to take up the slack until incoming 20-somethings get up to speed.
"We know it will be a challenge to get our share of the talent to meet our growth needs," said Frank Rudolph, executive vice president of human resources at Devon.
Half of the world's energy companies say they will delay projects if they can't get the right people, according to a 2011 Schlumberger Business Consulting survey of 37 global firms.
And competition is more fierce than ever, said Dane Groeneveld, regional director of NES Global Talent, a worldwide oil and gas industry recruiter.
"It's at the front end where you're creating the value and really finding those assets, which really underpin the share price," he said. "It's just at the foundation of the future of the business where you tend to find that people are fighting more tooth and nail for people in that space."
Petroleum engineers seek out oil and gas reservoirs, whether tens of thousands of feet beneath the sea or locked tight in thick shale far underground. They also design methods, equipment and processes to coax as much oil and gas as possible from those unforgiving recesses.
They work with geologists, geophysicists and other specialists to study layers and porosity of rock with seismic data maps and rock samples. Then they decide how to best extract oil and gas, whether by injecting water or steam or blasting cracks in the sides of wells using chemicals and sand to create fissures for oil and gas to flow -- a process that has become politically charged amid fears of contaminating groundwater.
Their roles have grown ever more crucial as the industry expand into unforgiving frontiers -- ultra-deep water far offshore, or the Arctic -- and as they develop ever more high-tech methods, from multi-dimensional real-time reservoir data and electromagnetic surveys to horizontal drilling.
"The technical complexity of future oil supply requires both technology and qualified petrotechnical professionals in greater number than the easier oil of previous generations would have required," said Al Escher, area director of North and South America for Schlumberger Business Consulting and a petroleum engineer.
During the oil bust, companies kept producing to pay the bills, but slashed exploration and petroleum engineers. College students also fled oil-centric programs. That changed in the 2000s as U.S. crude prices broke into triple digits, reaching an all-time high of nearly $150 a barrel in 2008.
Demand has intensified once again as oil firms rush to tap into the vast oil and gas reserves trapped in U.S. shale rocks, a process that requires far more wells than the big-ticket offshore fields that were the mainstay in recent decades.
U.S. shale oil plays -- most of which produced almost no oil just a few years ago -- now pump nearly 1 million barrels per day, with potential to jump to 3 million barrels per day by 2035 as more reservoirs in more plays are found, according to the National Petroleum Council. Canadian production is also booming, while Brazil's offshore output also is poised to surge.
Petroleum engineering programs have upped enrollment to meet that demand. Bachelor's degrees awarded shot up 181 percent to 753 since 2001, according to the American Society for Engineering Education's 2011 report.
And they're getting lucrative jobs. Total employment surged 221 percent to 28,210 since 1997. Mean salaries jumped 87 percent to $127,970 over the same time span -- 26 percent higher than nuclear engineers, the second best-paid engineering discipline, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
With demand so high and opportunities so widespread, companies send interns like Woner to offshore platforms, onshore drilling sites and other get-your-hands-dirty tasks in hopes of signing up the best ones early and often.
"I can show you a picture and tell you about it, but until you're standing on the drilling rig on the top of the mud pits and actually smell that smell, it's something you can't wrap your head around," said Daniel Rohling, 28, a senior reservoir engineer for El Paso Corp, EP.N where he interned before graduating in 2006. "It's the same with the whole industry."
Yet petroleum engineering programs are feeling the pinch as well, even capping enrollment because they can't entice enough professors to trade high private sector salaries for classrooms.
"Our faculty are maxed out and we have six faculty openings, but it's really difficult to find faculty because the job market is so hot," says Stephen Holditch, head of the petroleum engineering program at Texas A&M University.
"Companies are competing for employees and giving bonuses, but our faculty has not had a raise in two years."
He expects the number of graduates to max out at 1,000 to 1,200 per year beyond 2011.
While engineering graduates are hot commodities, experienced professionals in their late 30s and 40s are the most coveted.
"Although now we're seeing a sharp market increase in college graduates in the field being hired too, the mid-career professionals represent revenue. They can hit the ground running and they're not about to retire," said Bonnie Browning, a recruiter for Q4B, a managed recruiting firm whose clients include ConocoPhillips, (COP.N) Occidental Petroleum Corp (OXY.N) and Schlumberger (SLB.N).
Salaries can reach as high as $700,000 to $800,000 for senior engineers in managerial roles overseeing exploration, hikes of 20 to 30 percent, says Groeneveld.
He also said producers are offering bonuses and perks - such as help with selling a house - both to workers they hope to place in remote locale and those sought for U.S. hotspots.
Meanwhile, 20-somethings like Woner and Rohling are taking on more responsibility faster than the outgoing generation, running exploration projects in prolific shale oil plays like the Eagle Ford in Texas or the Bakken in North Dakota.
"The younger crowd is starting to lead the teams and the crews," Rohling said. "More and more, we're calling the shots in a lot of different areas, like the shales.
"We're going to pick up the torch of this industry long before we should have had to," he said.
Reporting By Kristen Hays; additional reporting by Joshua Schneyer in Rio de Janiero; Editing by Lisa Shumaker