Geology Students Striking It Rich

With the price of oil, gold and other metals at near record levels, these are heady times at the Colorado School of Mines. Employers are falling all over themselves to hire new graduates. Who'd have thought that being a geologist would make you so popular — and bring you $80,000 a year to start?

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

Oil is over $100 a barrel now, and even after a big drop last week, an ounce of gold costs more than $900. Big price hikes like that are bad news for most of us, but not for college students who are studying to be geologists and engineers.

As NPR's Jeff Brady reports, mining and drilling companies are tripping over each other to recruit them.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

JEFF BRADY: A noon bell tolls at the Colorado School of Mines, it's a state research university outside Denver, but the students walking by may be thinking of another kind of bell.

(Soundbite of cash register)

BRADY: Oil and mining companies are earning record profits and they're sharing the wealth. John Humphrey is the department head at the School of Mines.

Dr. JOHN HUMPHREY (Department Head, Geology and Geological Engineering, Colorado School of Mines): Graduates with a bachelor's degree in petroleum engineering can walk out of here and walk into an oil company and make $80,000 salary their first year - that's not including a signing bonus.

BRADY: And the moving expenses. And Humphrey says many can expect a 20-percent raise in six months. Students who signed up with a gold mining company earn slightly less but still about twice what a liberal arts major can expect the first year on the job. Oil and mining companies are spending a lot of time on college campuses wooing new graduates. Humphrey says October is the big recruiting month here.

Dr. HUMPHREY: I think that if students were to go to all the information nights and all the lunches that are put on by the recruiters that they wouldn't have to buy a meal for the entire month of October.

BRADY: Just a few years back, Humphrey was telling students to be patient, a job will come along. Now, he's helping them juggle multiple offers. Jane Stamer(ph) is finishing up her master's degree, but she's already working for a gold mining company. That job came after she stopped by a career fair just to check it out.

Ms. JANE STAMER: I started talking to one of the recruiters, who is a geologist, and he basically hired me on the spot and I've been working for them for the last year and a half.

BRADY: Stamer says she pursued geology because that's what she enjoys - all the attention has been a bit surprising.

Ms. STAMER: I've had to turn down a lot, a lot of companies, big and small from all over the place. It seems like anyone you talk to gives you their card and actively pursues you afterwards.

BRADY: Stamer's good fortune comes after a mining industry downturn in the 1990s - prices were low, companies weren't hiring, and several mining schools shut down - that left an age gap in the workforce. And just as these boom times hit, many employees were approaching retirement age. Carol Raulston with the National Mining Association says the increasing demand for geologists and the limited supply is pushing up starting wages.

Ms. CAROL RAULSTON (Member Services, National Mining Association): There was just an analysis that said geologist pay in the United States now tops that for MBAs generally and is rapidly approaching the salary for Harvard MBAs.

BRADY: That could explain more than 50 percent enrollment jump in geology and engineering programs at places like the Colorado School of Mines.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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