For one petroleum engineering student, oil prices change but the dream stays the same

Sydney Deering, president of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, stands in the student organization’s shared office at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The Lego drill rig next to her was made by another student last year. March 25, 2019. (Photo by Ravenna Koenig/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

College graduation is just around the corner, and many students will be heading out into the working world to try to figure out what they want to do with the hours they’ll no longer be putting into school.

For one petroleum engineering student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, that answer has been obvious since she was a kid — and hasn’t changed, even as oil prices have.

Sydney Deering has known that she wanted to work in the oil industry since she was about nine years old.

“Coming from Alaska, the people that I saw as most successful were either a part of the petroleum industry or the medical industry,” Deering said. “And I couldn’t do blood.”

As a kid growing up in Eagle River, she was good at math and science, so engineering felt like a natural choice.

As she got older, she fell in love with petroleum engineering specifically — the field where people figure out how to extract oil from the ground. Deering said it’s more creatively satisfying for her than other types of engineering.

“You can build two identical machines. You cannot find two identical reservoirs, and so every question is new,” she said. “And to me, that’s exciting.”

But when Deering was finishing up high school, the booming oil industry that she hoped to go into started to take a dive. In 2016, when she was a freshman at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, oil prices plummeted to under $30 a barrel.

Deering said she heard about people in the industry getting laid off or getting job offers revoked. And her sophomore year, her petroleum engineering-specific classes seemed to shrink by about half, at least in part due to students reconsidering what their job prospects might be after college.

“A huge amount of people actually moved over to mechanical engineering,” Deering said.

But Deering didn’t. Petroleum engineering is a narrower field, and it’s one that Deering knew might have fewer jobs available when oil prices were low. But it’s her passion, and she wanted to stick with it.

Sydney Deering stands next to a whiteboard with the words “Society of Petroleum Engineers” written on it. She leads her school’s chapter of the organization. (Photo by Ravenna Koenig/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

“I saw it as: I’m in a cyclic industry,” she said. “I’m coming in in the trough. Hopefully it’s only up from here.”

Oil prices have gone up since Deering started the program, though they’re still not back to what they were before the downturn.

But Abhijit Dandekar — the chair of the petroleum engineering department at UAF and Deering’s advisor — said that right now actually isn’t such a bad time to be looking for work. He said there’s less competition for jobs right now, because there are fewer people trying to go into the field than there were when the price of oil was through the roof.

“If you look at the number of jobs and number of potential job seekers, that ratio has become much more favorable now,” Dandekar said.

Even still, Deering has spent the past four years doing everything she can to make herself a competitive candidate. She’s president of her school’s chapter of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, and she’s active in the community outside UAF as well. She participates in all kinds of STEM- and resource-related outreach events for young kids and high school students. She talked about an event on her calendar a few weeks out.

“I’m going out to North Pole High School and teaching a couple classes for their engineering department on petroleum engineering,” Deering said.

She’s also done three internships with oil companies — two of them with ConocoPhillips, which allowed her to build a relationship with the company while she was still a student.

Deering sees that as a big factor in why she has a job lined up for after she graduates. She’ll be working as a petroleum engineer for ConocoPhillips here in Alaska.

When asked about what she sees as the future of the oil industry — beyond this year and further out on the horizon — Deering said it’s always been a cyclic industry. But increasingly, there’s pressure to move away from oil and gas and toward renewable energy.

Does that make Deering worry about her long-term job security?

Her short answer is no.

“While we are transitioning to renewables, we have to face the fact that it’s not going to transition as quickly as most people realize,” Deering said. “You can’t cut off cold turkey. There is going to be a time that we will continue to be dependent on oil.”

She also points to the many products that are petroleum-based — things like plastic, polyester shirts, rubber bands — that she doesn’t see disappearing anytime soon.

Deering’s graduation is just a month away. She showed me some plans for the graduation cap she’ll be wearing when she takes her diploma.

She paints in her free time, and she’s sketched out a painting she’s going to do on the square top of her cap. It’s the silhouette of an oil rig against a sunset.

Sydney Deering stands next to a whiteboard with the words “Society of Petroleum Engineers” written on it. She leads her school’s chapter of the organization. (Photo by Ravenna Koenig/Alaska’s Energy Desk)
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