Oil Boom in Texas Shale Areas Brings Shortage of Commercial Truck Drivers
With the oil extraction in the shale areas of Texas in full swing, the demand for qualified oil field truck drivers is in an all-time high, And with Cline Shale drilling on the horizon, oil field transportation companies are positioning themselves to gain the maximum potential business, contracts and relationships, while keeping an eye out for qualified drivers getting fewer and farther between.
Last year was a record year for the U.S. for the oil and gas industry. Exploration and production companies are producing higher amounts of oil and gas than ever before and it doesn’t look like output will slow down in 2013. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates total U.S. oil production averaged 6.4 million barrels per day in 2012; it’s projected to increase (12%) to 7.3 million barrels per day in 2013.
As growth in oil and gas production continues, transportation is becoming an even more critical part of the process. At least 66,000 more trucks were demanded last year by the industry because the expansion of oil shale extraction. This demand largely stemmed from the use of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking – the process requires trucks to haul sand and water to and from well sites.
Six months ago, neighboring Midland-Odessa had 2,000 job postings for oil field truck drivers, according to the Workforce Solutions of West Central Texas. It was unclear how many have been hired since then, but Robert Puls, Workforce Solutions of West Central Texas business development consultant, said the turnover will keep the industry humming for a long while.
And with the Cline having the potential of containing 30 billion barrels of recoverable oil, the demand for oil field drivers will be just one of the major hurdles many counties in the Big Country region will face.
Puls said the higher demand currently is not in the long haul spectrum of professional truck driving, but in the oil field services part of the operation – commercial drivers to haul equipment, oil, water, sand and hazardous materials. “That is where the shortage is going to be,” Puls said. “Midland-Odessa has that shortage.”
Cactus Trucking and Oilfield Services in Abilene is in that line of business. Its drivers haul pipes from the mills, ports, yards to drilling rigs. The business also hauls other oil field related equipment. “We truck everything except fluid,” David Parker, Cactus president, said. “We haul storage tanks, separators, heaters, pumping units, etc.”
Parker said along with the anticipation on the Cline, there also is anxiety of competing with bigger companies for qualified oil field truck drivers. “We currently have a very good staff of drivers, but drivers come and go,” Parker said. “And there are so few of them (drivers) to pick from that you really have a hard time finding the right guy to fit your specific needs. And we struggle with that everyday: We have a fair amount of turnover with our truck drivers.” Simply put, Parker said oil field services companies are “fighting for the same driver.”
Wages Rise With Demand
“It drives up wages so you have to pay these guys a lot more that what would normally be the pay scale just to get the quality of person that you want working for you,” Parker said. “You want the quality guy because you’re driving 80,000 pounds of equipment on the highway and you need somebody that has his head on his shoulders running that. Safety is a big issue.”
Average pay for an entry level truck driver ranges from $36,000 to $45,000, but it rises to $50,000 to $70,000 in the oil field. Drivers work longer hours and spend time away from home, but can be offset by paychecks twice that of typical jobs.
The American Trucking Association (ATA) estimates the industry is short as many as 30,000 drivers across the country. The problem is compounded by high turnover rates: 70 percent to 90 percent a year. In the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, the high turnover rate is probably the only reason oil companies have been able to hire as many drivers as they have.
Markets are rising to the workforce challenges of the oil boom. For example, employers have raised wages to lure workers in a variety of industries, not just oil and gas. But when jobs are plentiful and wages high, employers still go begging for workers.
The Cline Shale is a huge oil source on the eastern flank of the Midland Basin, roughly 140 miles north to south and 70 miles wide, running through portions of Mitchell, Coke, Fisher, Glasscock, Howard, Irion, Nolan, Reagan, Scurry and Sterling counties,
“On the southern end of it (Cline), it appears to be pretty active and we’re talking about down in the Big Lake, Sterling City area,” Cactus Trucking’s Parker said. “In the northern edges, it’s in the early days I think. They’re (oil companies) still working on the process, trying to get it down: It’s not blowing just yet.”
EagleOne Oilfield Transportation, a Fort Smith, Ark., company with operations in the Midland-Odessa area, is keeping a close watch at the developments in the Cline. Its biggest operation in the area remains in the Permian Basin. David Edge, the company’s director of recruitment, said
EagleOne is doing what it can to attract new drivers and retain its current fleet with perks, good benefits and competitive pay. The temporary housing being offered by EagleOne could save a driver anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 a month, according to Edge.
Truck Schools Booming But Drivers Still Lack Experience
According to figures from Workforce Solutions, as of last week, there are about 95 openings for commercial drivers in the Abilene Metropolitan Statistical Area, made up of Taylor, Jones and Callahan counties.
During several Cline Shale meetings, elected officials, economic development directors, and technical college representatives from the counties involved discussed possibly offering truck-driving courses. Some colleges are rapidly finding it difficult to hire instructors, many of whom are opting for higher-paying oil and gas transportation jobs.
“There was mention about the colleges doing training for truck drivers but that has not come to be because it’s really expensive to do a truck driving program and you have to have enough volume coming through,” Puls said.
Texas State Technical College in Sweetwater is planning on starting a truck driver training program in September, according to Dixon Bailey, TSTC Corporate College vice president. “We are in the process of purchasing the tractor and tanker along with pumping systems and a mock oil field tank battery,” Bailey said. “Our program is specific to the oil field – water and crude hauling. Not only do these jobs have more demand via prospective students/job seekers, it will serve a major employee shortage.”
Bailey, however, pointed out the college still is looking for “the right instructor” and is working with 20 to 30 local trucking companies in the search. The course will be 240 hours or up to six weeks. “Most (local trucking companies) want to interview our grads as soon as we have a graduating class,” Bailey said. “We hope to graduate 30 to 40 in the first year, if demand stays constant we may add trucks and instructors.”
Many oil field services transportation companies require two years of experience, and that can prove problematic in oil boom areas.
“We have in the past hired some younger fellows that just got out of truck driving schools that had very little experience driving a truck, no experience in oil field trucking,” Parker said. “We’ve had some success doing that and I have hired a couple of guys like that that turned out to be pretty good employees.” However, Parker described getting newly licensed drivers as somewhat of a “crap shoot, because you don’t know how they’re going to turn out. So we have to look at guys with a little bit more experience driving a truck so we have a professional driving background to look at,” Parker said.
EagleOne is on the same boat. Although it has touched base with truck driving schools, the company mainly is interested in graduates who have had at least two years of professional driving experience. “When that (Cline) shale really gets to going, unless drivers step up, you’re going to see we’re (oil field transportation companies) going to have to get creative.”