LARAMIE, Wyo. — Ashley Lantz had no idea what her major would be when she was a freshman at Colorado School of Mines, but she knew that she liked the idea of living in exotic places.
Lantz, 23, decided on petroleum engineering. Now she's in the vanguard of the "Great Crew Change" as companies seek to replace an entire generation of workers who entered the industry during the last oil boom.
With pay starting at $50,000 to $60,000 a year and a healthy supply of jobs -- a result of booming natural gas drilling and a wave of retirements in the profession -- enrollment in undergraduate petroleum engineering is up 46% nationwide since 2002.
"Every company that I've talked to says they simply can't get enough petroleum engineering staff for their projects. They're just crying out for people," said Brian Towler, head of the department of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Wyoming.
The University of Wyoming is bringing back an undergraduate major in petroleum engineering after a four-year hiatus. Towler hopes eventually to have 100 undergraduates with the major, more than the school has had since 1987.
Similarly, the 2,347 undergraduates majoring in petroleum engineering in the U.S. this school year is the highest figure since 1987 -- though it's still well below the peak of 11,014 in 1983, according to figures that Texas Tech professor Lloyd Heinze compiled for the Society of Petroleum Engineers.
It was Lantz's advisor who looked at her good math and science grades and suggested petroleum engineering. "Four years ago, they knew there was a huge age gap and that we would need people," Lantz said.
Although the profession offers plenty of opportunities for far-flung travel -- with a lot of oil and gas drilling in the former Soviet republics, West Africa and South America -- Lantz said that heading overseas was no longer a priority for her.
Between her junior and senior years, she interned with EnCana Corp., based in Calgary, Canada. And last fall, months before her May graduation, the company offered her a job.
"Senior year was pretty nice knowing that I had a job," she said.
Based in Denver, she spends one week a month in the Parachute, Colo., area on Colorado's Western Slope, where gas drilling is booming.
So far she has focused on the production side -- working on existing wells -- but she also plans to get to know the profession's other specialties, such as exploration and transforming newly drilled wells into producing wells.
"Every person you meet has a different story," she said. "It's pretty neat that with one degree you can do so many different things."
Even more opportunities will be available for the next generation of petroleum engineers, said Margaret Watson, spokeswoman for the Society of Petroleum Engineers in Richardson, Texas. The average age of the group's members is approaching 50, she said, and that means not only more openings but more opportunities to advance.
"These people are going to have to come up to speed very quickly and have to move into management positions more quickly than in the past because those vacancies are going to exist," she said.
Students seem to be aware of these developments.
Petroleum engineering enrollment is up virtually everywhere such a degree is offered. Only USC, with the smallest U.S. undergraduate program, hasn't added students this year.
More and more, the field is for the mathematically inclined.
Towler said students should expect to take several semesters of calculus. There also are courses in engineering science -- statics, dynamics, fluids and thermodynamics -- as well as in drilling, production, oil and gas reservoirs, and measuring the properties of rock.
"It's a lot more of a high-tech field -- a lot more exotic materials being used -- and it's a lot more math-intensive than it was previously," he said.