Despite concern about declining oil stocks, the energy industry is booming and on the lookout for new recruits. Nick Jackson reports

Energy is big business. Just how big was shown last week when BP's share-price dropped after it published its annual report: £11bn profits were just not enough for BP shareholders.

It is an industry that seems to never have had it so good, with big oil companies Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell breaking US and British records with their 2005 profits. And it is not just the money that is exciting. If anything, energy has outgrown its "big country" Texan stereotypes, looking ever further and deeper for fresh reserves. Energy is at the top of everyone's agenda, from grunts to politicians, engineers to environmentalists.

So whether you're tut-tutting about the terrible damage done to the environment by our oil addiction, or asking yourself how to get a golden crumb from the energy cake, there are an increasing number of graduate opportunities out there. This year Shell will take on 150 graduates, up 50 per cent on a couple of years ago, while RWS Group, which heads NPower and Thames Water, has recruited 120 graduates this year, six times the number it brought into the business in 2004. Starting salaries are at nearly £30,000, rising to the £100,000 mark by your thirties. Most recruits are engineers, but for the commercial side of the business - buying and selling energy - the energy companies recruit from a range of backgrounds. Enthusiasm to learn and character count most.

But you wouldn't have an energy business unless you had someone to pump the gas in the first place. Ben Firbank, 25, is a chemical engineer working on one of Shell's refineries near Liverpool. He says it was the sheer scale of engineering involved in the energy industry that first attracted him. "Probably one of the biggest crunches was scale. It's massive," he says. "In other industries it's on a much smaller scale."

Firbank was sponsored by Shell through his chemical engineering BSc at Cambridge. But it wasn't just the big bucks and big machines that drew him in. "The energy industry is going to be pretty interesting over the next two decades," he says. The challenges of securing a regular energy supply, making China's energy boom sustainable, and adapting to the new awareness of climate change are going to keep energy at the top of the agenda, and recruits like Firbank busy.

It is Mark Daniels's job, on the commercial side, to figure out the cost of that future. Daniels, 27, graduated with a business degree not exactly sure what he wanted to do. He joined the utilities company E.ON that owns Powergen because the graduate programme offered a wealth of opportunities. "It's a great chance to go and see what you want to do," he says. Daniels, 27, found his home in energy as a commodities trader, calculating whether it was better to buy in natural resources like oil and gas, or electricity from other companies. He now works with E.ON's industrial client's to get them the best deals.

E.ON's size brings diversity, which is what fascinates Daniels most. "It's an exceptionally dynamic environment," he says. "No two days are ever the same." A newly liberalised gas market and carbon emissions caps make energy more exciting than ever. "It's great to be in a market as sophisticated and mature as oil and then also deal in a market that's just starting out," he says. "Trading in carbon emissions began last year and I was one of the first traders to do that."

It's one thing trading in change and another to actually deliver it. That is what Dr Iftikar Khan is doing. A gas turbine engineer, Khan, 30, joined NPower four years ago after finishing his PhD on gas turbines - the technology being introduced to replace old power stations. Now he combines work on gas turbines, one of the cleanest ways of generating conventional electricity, with research into biomass substitution, using wood and crops in coal plants to reduce carbon emissions. "This allows me to make a difference to the environment," he says. And it's at no cost to Khan's career. On the graduate scheme, Khan was encouraged, and given days off to study, to become a chartered engineer, chartered environmentalist and a chartered scientist.

"Energy is a very exciting industry that provides some interesting opportunities to learn, develop, and progress," says Khan. "And it's very rewarding, too." Who could ask for more than that, except perhaps BP's shareholders?

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