As a paid engineering intern the last two summers at Exxon Mobil's Joliet Refinery in Channahon, Ill., Megan DeGraaf worked on projects that her full-time colleagues considered low priority. But the results she produced on equipment and pipe designs were solid enough that the oil giant offered her a permanent position.
In August, the recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh will join Exxon Mobil as a mechanical contact engineer at the Joliet downstream refinery where oil is processed for retail consumption.
Though she didn't set her sights on a career in energy when she enrolled at Pitt, Ms. DeGraaf joins a steadily growing number of women landing jobs in the burgeoning oil and gas industry.
Of 3,900 positions added in oil and gas nationwide in the first quarter of 2013, almost half or 1,800, were filled by women, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was the 13th straight quarter of job creation in the oil and gas sector.
Not all of the new jobs were in engineering; the industry also hires people to work on drilling rigs and pipelines, and individuals qualified for research, sales and marketing positions.
Jobs specifically tied to drilling and hydraulic fracturing -- or "fracking," the process used to extract natural gas from rock formations such as the Marcellus Shale by injecting them with liquid -- are expected to total 2.5 million by 2015, according to IHS Global Insight, a forecasting firm based in Englewood, Colo.
University engineering officials say the demand for female engineers in these fields is so strong that even those who don't specialize in the types of engineering most often associated with oil and gas -- such as chemical and petroleum -- can expect job offers.
"The companies want them, and when we start to discuss a recruiting relationship, they always want to know the statistics about women. The companies want to have a balanced workforce; it's a big societal issue," said Don Shields, director at Pitt's Center for Energy in the Swanson School of Engineering.
"Women don't have nearly the need to prove themselves as a decade ago," said M. Granger Morgan, director of the Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation and head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
Of 379 students scheduled to graduate with bachelor's degrees today from CMU's engineering school, 127, or about one-third, are female. The women account for just over half of the 74 students whose degrees are in chemical engineering.
At Pitt, of an estimated 2,400 undergraduates in the 2012-13 class that graduated last month, about 23 percent were women.
But while employers and universities may seek them out, women remain a minority in the engineering job ranks because relatively few have entered the traditionally male-dominated profession.
In a study released last year by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers found women may not believe their own technical skills are strong enough to pursue engineering careers. And some found they weren't taken seriously during internships and were relegated to stereotypical female roles such as note-takers.
Those are the kind of perceptions that advocates for women in the so-called STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math -- are trying to dispel.
"There are a whole slew of potential obstacles, but they are not insurmountable," said Gabriella Gonzalez, a social scientist at Rand Corp. whose research focuses on STEM issues. She spoke Tuesday at CMU at a panel discussion on jobs in the energy industry.
"It's sort of obvious that you stand out as a woman in engineering simply because of the numbers," said Casey Canfield, 25, a doctoral student in engineering and public policy at CMU. "There's still a novelty factor -- very few women end up doing engineering accidentally, so it tends to be a very purposeful path."
For Ms. DeGraaf, 22, who grew up in Grove City, Mercer County, the idea of a job in energy was totally off her radar in high school when, "I didn't even know what an engineer was."
Because she was good in math and science, teachers helped direct her to the engineering field and she went to Pitt with the idea of becoming a bioengineer.
"My original intention was to do something with prosthetics," she said.
But as she became more familiar with the school's engineering curriculum, she decided mechanical engineering might be beneficial for job prospects. Her first internship was at a General Electric locomotive engine production plant in Grove City; the following year she accepted an internship with Exxon Mobil.
While earning her degree, she also completed coursework for a minor in material science and for Pitt's certificate in nuclear engineering.
"That makes them very attractive in the job market," Mr. Shields said of students who earn the nuclear certificate.
Besides a boom in the energy industry fueled by drilling in the Marcellus and other shale regions, new grads of both genders are benefiting from an aging engineering workforce.
"A whole bunch of people are right on the edge of retiring," said Mr. Morgan, who also spoke at CMU's energy jobs panel. "It's good in the sense of opportunity. But the problem is that implicit knowledge needs to get transferred" from the older generation of engineers to the new hires.
To that point, a Westinghouse engineer on the same panel said the Cranberry-based company that builds nuclear reactors is hiring engineers in almost every specialty -- including nuclear, materials, chemical, electrical, mechanical, civil, computer and systems -- because so many of its engineers are over 50 years old.
"There's an aging workforce in the nuclear industry," said Dave Vaglia, a principal engineer for Westinghouse. Following the meltdown in 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor near Harrisburg, he said, growth in the nuclear power sector slowed considerably as the industry coped with safety and regulatory issues. "So now we have a lot of new engineers and old engineers. People are retiring so jobs are out there."
Among engineers, it's common to launch a career in one specialty and switch to another industry or expertise later because the basic skills can be applied to a range of industries, said Mr. Morgan.
That's already happening among soon-to-be graduates of CMU's chemical engineering program.
Abby Schaeffer, 22, who will graduate with honors in chemical engineering in July, will join computer chip maker Intel Corp. in Portland, Ore.
While perusing a CMU job website, the New York City native saw postings from Intel for chemical and mechanical engineers. Before flying to Intel's campus last November for a daylong series of interviews, she brushed up on computer programming she had learned in high school. "They were looking for my reasoning skills, not the perfect answer. They're looking for the engineering and analytic mind-set."
Among the chemical engineering majors headed for the chemicals industry is Stephanie Engel, 22, who accepted an offer from PPG Industries at its Barberton, Ohio, specialty chemicals plant where she previously worked as a summer intern.
Though the Erie native attended an on-campus recruiting session by Exxon Mobil and looked at opportunities with other energy firms, "A lot of them were in Texas, and that's too far away from home for me."
Joyce Gannon: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1580. First Published May 19, 2013 4:00 AM