Why Natural Resources is the West's Secret Highly Profitable Career

Apr 02, 2015 | By Maryalene LaPonsie
Article Sources


1. Interview with Joseph Lampinen, Director of the Engineering Center of Excellence at Kelly Services
2. Interview with Josh LeBrun, President and CEO of
3. Alaska's Oil & Gas Industry, Resource Development Council,
4. Addressing the energy industry talent gap, KPMG, 2014,
5. Be Part of a Growing Workforce, Nuclear Energy Institute,
6. Industrial Management, American Chemical Society,
7. Salary Survey, Society of Petroleum Engineers,
8. Oregon State Nuclear Engineers Solve Looming Medical Isotope Shortage, Nick Houtman, Oregon State University, May 29, 2014,
9. Expected Shortage of Geoscience Workforce Shortage, American Geoscience Institute, October 16, 2014,
10. Emerging Workforce Trends in the U.S. Mining Industry, Clifford Brandon III, Automated Systems Alliance, January 2012,


Highly Profitable Career

When asked to name the hottest jobs out West, the tech industry may seem like the most logical answer. However, a jobs analysis conducted by finds there is another sector that is quietly creating jobs that well-exceed the national average. Natural resources-driven jobs are in-demand and offer average annual salaries that top six figures, especially in highly populated states such as California. (See online colleges in California.) And yet, students may overlook these career choices, leaving some positions facing a significant talent gap in the years to come. used 2013-2014 jobs data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to determine which natural resources-related positions offered the most jobs and the greatest income potential in Western states, which include Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii, Alaska. Based on annual mean wage data and employment per 1,000 jobs statistics in these states, here are the five occupations that rose to our attention:

  • Natural sciences managers
  • Petroleum engineers
  • Nuclear engineers
  • Mining and geological engineers
  • Geoscientists

What's Driving Higher Salaries?

Energy Needs

While the natural resources sector covers a lot of territory, from forestry to water conversation, many of the hot jobs in the West are related to oil, gas and other energy-related resources.

"Energy is the lifeblood of Western civilization," says Joseph Lampinen, director of the Engineering Center of Excellence for Kelly Services, a staffing company that sources engineering talent for companies in the West, as well as across the country.

The importance of energy nationwide means the industry plays a significant role in the economies of Western states where large stores of oil, gas and other resources are located.

Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in Alaska. According to the Resource Development Council, oil production in Alaska funds 90 percent of the state's unrestricted General Fund revenue. However, Alaska isn't the only Western state with significant oil reserves, and California is home to large drilling operations both on land and offshore.

Energy's prominence in Western economies may help explain why salaries for professionals working in these fields can be so high. "Petroleum engineers have the highest starting salaries of any engineers," says Lampinen, noting that engineers, in general, tend to be a well-paid group.

Petroleum engineers have the highest starting salaries of any engineers.       

- Joseph Lampinen

Demand for Highly Skilled Workers

Another factor that may drive salaries in the future is demand for these types of workers. According to a survey conducted by advisory firm KPMG, in collaboration with Rigzone, 50 percent of the energy industry's workforce should be eligible to retire in 2015, meaning a talent shortage may be looming. While worker retirement is an issue, the report found it was only part of the problem.

In addition to the impending retirement of many of the industry's leading technical specialists and senior managers, other factors exacerbating the problem include inadequately skilled workers to rise through the ranks and replace them, the new complex technical skills necessary to compete in an always-innovating sector, intense competition over a limited talent pool, and lack of highly skilled workers entering the industry in the downturn during the late '80s and '90s.

A Note on Cyclical Employment

Another issue that may be affecting employment in the industry is the boom and bust cycles some sectors follow. That means that although petroleum engineers and other energy professionals can command high salaries, demand isn't always constant.

"Every few years when the price of oil drops, there are tremendous layoffs," says Josh LeBrun, president and CEO of, an occupational safety software provider for energy, construction, utility and similar businesses. "People working in these industries need to be conscious that they may need to look for employment every five years."

Lampinen agrees that the oil industry, in particular, can run in cycles. When the price drops, companies may cut back on hiring or even lay off workers. "That's cyclical and temporary," he says. "When you look at the complete picture [of the natural resources industry], you see demand continuing."

While fluctuating demand may be concerning, LeBrun says it shouldn't necessarily scare off students from entering the field. "The compensation they receive is generally higher than any other industry so they are effectively being paid to take that risk," LeBrun says. "Smart employees will live within their means, saving money in case commodity prices do decrease and they face short- or medium-term unemployment."

Featured High-Paying 5 Natural Resources Jobs in the West

Oil and gas seem to dominate the discussion of natural resources jobs in the West, but they aren't the only options for students hoping to enter this field. Workers are also needed to develop renewable energy sources, manage existing resources and respond to the challenges posed by disasters such as the California drought.

According to the analysis of 2014 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the following five occupations are among the top-paying and most in-demand jobs for natural resources professionals in Western states. Note that the BLS reports the national annual mean wage for all occupations was $47,230 in 2014.

#1 - Natural Sciences Managers

  • Annual mean wage in the West: $164,340
  • Education requirement: Bachelor's degree
  • Employment per 1,000 jobs in the West: 1.335

The number one career in natural resources, according to the survey, is one with which you may not be familiar. Natural sciences managers may be employed in a variety of settings to oversee the work of scientists and other technicians. Their duties may be just as varied as their work environment, with some managers being responsible for hiring staff, creating project goals, training technicians and troubleshooting problems.

Although a bachelor's degree is the minimum education needed to work as a natural sciences manager, most individuals in the field have experience as scientists or in another technical field. The American Chemical Society suggests five or more years of experience is the norm, with some positions requiring a graduate degree as well.

Natural Science Manager

#2 - Petroleum Engineers

  • Annual mean wage in the West: $160,340
  • Education requirement: Bachelor's degree
  • Employment per 1,000 jobs in the West: 2.393

While current low oil prices have a negative effect on hiring for petroleum engineers, students may not want to count out the occupation entirely. Renewable and alternative energy sources may be gaining traction, but much of the world still runs on oil. Although controversial, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in Alaska and attempts to extract oil from Monterey Shale in California could trigger new waves of hiring.

Even without those initiatives, petroleum engineers make enough money that the risk of temporary unemployment could be worth the financial gain. In addition to their base salary, the Society for Petroleum Engineers says professionals in the U.S. averaged $74,023 in bonuses and other compensation in 2014.

Petroleum Engg

#3 - Nuclear Engineers

  • Annual mean wage in the West: $135,110
  • Education requirement: Bachelor's degree
  • Employment per 1,000 jobs in the West: 0.413

Despite some high-profile failures, nuclear energy holds the promise of emission-free energy, and today's nuclear engineers are an integral part of improving and maintaining safety at plants. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, there is an urgent need to replace an aging workforce, in which half of those currently employed should be able to retire in ten years. Employees are needed to work at 99 existing nuclear plants in the nation and help with the construction of five new plants.

Other nuclear engineers are putting their expertise to use in the medical field. For example, engineers at Oregon State University created a process to develop more of a medical isotope used in nuclear diagnostic testing. With radiation therapy and nuclear medicine moving to the forefront of treatment for many illnesses, tomorrow's nuclear engineers may be as much at home in a medical lab as a power plant.

Nuclear Engg

#4 - Mining and Geological Engineers

  • Annual mean wage in the West: $124,600
  • Education requirement: Bachelor's degree
  • Employment per 1,000 jobs in the West: 0.484

Like oil, mining can follow a boom-and-bust cycle which may affect employment prospects. A 2012 report prepared by Automated Systems Alliance for four mining industry groups highlights how the number of mining engineering graduates bottomed out after the industry went through a bust period in the 1980s and then further declined in the late 1990s. With fewer students, specialty mining programs have been on the decline, and the industry finds itself in a position where the global commodities market looks ready to boom, but there are not enough qualified U.S. workers available.

Those who want to step in and fill the talent gap for mining and geological engineers may need to earn their degree from one of the only handful of schools that still offer mining engineering degree programs. In addition, some states may require licensure before beginning work as a mining and geological engineer.


#5 - Geoscientists

  • Annual mean wage in the West: $120,150
  • Education requirement: Bachelor's degree
  • Employment per 1,000 jobs in the West: 1.877

Like natural sciences managers, geoscientists play varied roles in Western economies. They may work alongside petroleum or mining engineers to find mineral deposits and plan for extraction. Or they may work in a lab, analyze data or prepare reports.

The American Geosciences Institute estimated in 2014 that there would be a shortage of 135,000 geoscientists by 2022. As with other natural resources-related jobs in the West, an aging workforce is a prime reason for the pending shortage. Fortunately, geoscientists need only a bachelor's degree for starting positions which means today's students can enter the workforce relatively quickly.

Geo Sci

Tips for Landing a Natural Resources Job

Students interested in working in one of these occupations may need to have more than technical skills. "One thing we advise engineering students is that employers are looking for students that have exposure to the industry," Lampinen says.

That exposure could come through an internship or a summer job. Students may also want to pursue career-oriented extracurricular activities and join student chapters of professional associations. In addition, Lampinen recommends students work on developing soft skills such as project management, interpersonal communication and open innovation.

"Engineering is a very collegial sort of activity," he says. "You need to work well as part of a team in addition to having the raw technical talent."

Still, technical talent is a must. Lampinen notes employers are going to be looking for students who do well in school, and many natural resources-related majors have curricula that are challenging. But for those who excel, the rewards can be great.

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