October 24, 2008
Pick the right major, and you could be rich
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It's often said someone makes money even in a bad economy.
Cody Bass just didn't know how much.
"A hundred thousand dollars," the 22-year-old college senior said.
That's the annual salary that Bass — who is still a semester away from receiving his bachelor's degree from the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla — is to be paid for his first job out of college.
That, he said, doesn't even include the $7,500 he'll be given in moving expenses. Or the $20,000 he's getting upfront as an early signing bonus. Or the $25,000 "impact bonuses" he said he was told to expect for each of the first two years he is on the job.
Total package for his first year in his first real job: $145,000-plus.
"I was shocked," Bass said. "We grew up very modest. When I was growing up, my dad probably didn't make much more than $30,000 a year teaching in Oklahoma. I feel bad for everyone having such a hard time."
But such are the rewards of picking the right college major even in these shaky economic times.
For Bass, that is petroleum engineering, a job for which starting salaries in the expanding business now average $85,000 to $95,000, with offers often coming a year or more before the end of college.
"It's phenomenal," said Rolla petroleum engineering professor Shari Dunn-Norman. "These are kids."
Yet Bass is hardly alone.
Whereas workers in some industries are being laid off by the thousands, in others — such as engineering, accounting, nursing, pharmacy and, as the cost of shipping by truck has risen, railroads — the watchword is "hired," not "fired," as new employees are being promised high-paying jobs sometimes more than a year before graduation.
Of course, many of the jobs have their perceived downsides, which range from long hours to boredom to weeks and, in some cases, months spent traveling. But the financial incentives can be great.
Nationwide, college accounting programs are booming, filled to capacity, growing and taking on more faculty.
"As it turns out, accounting is rather resilient in good and bad times," said Steve Limberg, director of the master's of accounting program at the University of Texas, Austin, one of the premier programs in the nation. "In good times, people want to know how to manage their prosperity. In bad, they want to know how to manage their cost saving."
In 2002, financial scandals at companies that included Enron, Tyco, Adelphia and WorldCom were so bad that Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to improve corporate and executive accountability. The call for new financial accountability created an equally large call for more accountants.
At schools including the University of Missouri, the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, the job-placement rates for accountants before graduation now range between 95 percent and 100 percent.
Some students, such as Kansas State fifth-year senior Jessalyn Dean, 23, are receiving full-time job offers as much as 18 months before graduation. First-year salaries frequently are $45,000 and up.
"If I mention anything about how much I'm paid, I'm told to shut up," said Dean, speaking of her two older sisters, neither of whom chose accounting and neither of whom makes nearly as much as their younger sister.
Dean received a full-time offer two summers ago while on an internship at Grant Thornton, an international accounting firm with an office in Kansas City that has grown by more than 50 percent in the last four years. She doesn't begin until January.
"You're going to get a job, a good job with almost guaranteed lifelong job security," said Karen Miller, senior vice chancellor and dean of the University of Kansas School of Nursing.
Starting salaries with a four-year nursing degree: about $50,000. The reason is the aging population. The job situation is similar for the other allied health professions, including occupational or physical therapy. At the University of Kansas, for example, enrollment at the school of nursing has risen by 50 percent in the last four years — from 474 nursing students in 2004 to 711 in September of this year.
"Our graduates have no problems getting work," Miller said. The case is similar nationwide.
Robert Piepho, dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Pharmacy, tells this story: He is at commencement two years ago. The parent of a graduate approaches him and says his daughter, before graduation, had received an offer of $107,000 to become a local pharmacist.
Then the company called back.
"They said they were going to increase her salary by $5,000 more before she even set foot on site," Piepho said.
Becoming a pharmacist requires an advanced degree. But, again, the aging population has resulted in a nationwide shortage in pharmacists. That has caused first-time salaries to bulge well into the six figures.
"If you look at how the population is aging, the older-than-65 population," Piepho said, "the latest projections say that the United States will be 157,000 pharmacists short the year 2020."
Beyond offering high salaries, some companies, he said, are wooing young pharmacists with offers to pay off their student loans.
Conductors, brakemen, electricians, signalmen, locomotive engineers, track workers: All are in high demand in the railroad industry, which in recent years has started booming again as gas prices have risen and the industry itself has experienced a number of retirements.
"This industry has come back in a big way," said Bill Vantuono, editor of RailwayAge magazine.
Higher fuel costs and decreased consumer spending have cut into the growth of the business within the last year. But in the last four years, BNSF Railway alone brought on more than 15,000 new employees, and it plans to bring on 2,000 more this year.
Over the entire industry, the call is to hire some 40,000 new railroad employees over the next six years, according to the Association of American Railroads.
"I would say that to get a job in the railroad industry, you're not just making a bet on the short-term, but on the long-term over the next 20 to 30 years," Vantuono said.
Getting a railroad job is not simple. It's dangerous work. As such, employers place a premium on steady, safety-conscious employees. Many apply. For the few chosen, the pay is good.
"We offer some of the best-paying jobs in the country," said BNSF spokesman Steve Forsberg. "The average railroad worker makes $65,000 a year. That includes clerks to the locomotive engineer."
"Conducting usually starts at about $60,000 a year," said Scott Schafer, general director of the National Academy of Railroad Sciences, a school that trains railroad workers in six-week programs at Johnson County Community College. "A locomotive engineer could make over $100,000 a year depending on his location or seniority."
Of course, even that's not petroleum-engineer money.
"Right now there are so many oil companies, big and small, they're all looking for graduates," said Rolla professor Dunn-Norman, adding that the work is hardly easy.
Drilling, reservoir engineering, well-testing, production — petroleum engineering can take lots of forms. It's also bound to take graduates all over the world.
"Kids from Missouri, wherever, have to understand that they're probably not going to work in Missouri," she said. "You have to understand that from the get-go. It's going to be long hours. And it's going to be competitive and high-risk.
"But with high risk come great rewards."
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