A year ago, the coronavirus pandemic caused jobs to vanish from the energy sector as the demand for gasoline and fuel plummeted from travel restrictions and more people working from home.
But now the economy is picking up. The summer driving season spurred fuel demand, and airline seats are getting filled. With the typical high turnover and need for labor that goes with truck driving, the demand for tanker drivers and truckers to move equipment for oil and gas suppliers is greater than ever.
Trucking companies and trade associations said the shortfall in qualified drivers is affecting specialty segments especially hard, affecting revenue and growth.
Bob McDowell, president and owner of Houston-based W.M. Dewey & Son Inc., said his company has “tried everything” but hasn’t been able to find qualified applicants.
Founded in 1895, W.M. Dewey & Son is one of the oldest oil field transportation companies in Texas. It primarily serves Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
“We haul oil field pipe to the drilling sites. We are raising our trucking rates, which means a pay raise for the drivers,” McDowell said. “They make a percentage of the load revenue. Drivers are averaging $1,500 to $1,800 per week, we have increased sign-on bonuses and referral bonuses, but still no luck.”
McDowell said it’s frustrating because the company needs to build its driver fleet to increase revenue.
“We have heard that with the high spot market trucking rates, individual owner-operators are choosing to get their own authority and take loads off the load boards,” McDowell said. “They keep 100% of the load revenue rather than sharing it with a trucking company. That is a bad trend for established trucking companies, which cannot increase their driver/owner-operator count.”
The national spot rate, represented by Truckstop.com’s seven-day average (see SONAR chart), is down about 10% from a record high of $3.60 on Sept. 5. The dry van seven-day moving average was $3.21 a mile, inclusive of fuel, as of Sept. 12.
The Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association (TIPRO) said there were about 1,400 job postings for drivers with a commercial driver’s license in the Texas oil and natural gas industry in June and July, including 127 help wanted ads for crude oil tanker drivers.
TIPRO is one of the largest energy trade associations in Texas, representing nearly 3,000 individuals and companies from the state’s oil and gas industry.
In August, there were in 581 job postings for CDL drivers and 110 postings for crude oil drivers.
Texas’ upstream (exploration and production) oil and gas sector employment for August 2021 totaled 178,500, an increase of 2,800 jobs from revised June numbers, and the fourth consecutive month of job growth since April.
TIPRO also reports strong job posting data for upstream, midstream (storage and transport) and downstream (production and distribution) sectors for the month of August in line with rising employment, reflecting a continued demand for talent in the Texas oil and natural gas industry.
TIPRO President Ed Longanecker said the oil and natural gas industry has experienced consistent growth in employment and jobs postings in 2021 as economic conditions and global demand improve.
“Oil and natural gas demand is poised to surge over the next 6-12 months, despite a temporary slowdown due to the Delta variant. Bullish fundamentals set up oil prices and the industry for strong returns over the next few years, which will have a positive impact on industry employment and economic growth for our state and country,” Longanecker said in a statement.
The specialty trucking segment with the biggest employment gaps could be petroleum and liquid tankers, which has seen an almost 42% reduction in qualified driver applicants since 2019, according to the National Tank Truck Carriers (NTTC), an industry trade group.
“The driver shortage has hit the specialized segment of petroleum drivers especially hard and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the issue,” NTTC said in a study released in August.
Tanker drivers can make anywhere from $50,000 to more than $100,000, depending on their qualifications and whether they are owner-operators or company drivers.
NTTC’s research consisted of a questionnaire sent to major players in the country’s petroleum-hauling sector, representing roughly 25% of the petroleum hauled in the U.S. Statistics are from May 2019 to May 2021.
NTTC estimates that between 20% and 25% of all tanker trucks are not currently being utilized because of a lack of qualified drivers.
“From September 2016 to January 2021, petroleum carriers and other heavy tractor-trailer drivers have seen an average of one hire for every nine job postings,” NTTC noted. “During the same period, the blue collar workforce — a broad pool that covers workers with a high school diploma or less — has seen one hire for every one job posting. It highlights the difficulty petroleum carriers have finding qualified professional drivers to fill increasing demand.”
NTTC said some of the reasons for lack of qualified tanker drivers include:
- An aging workforce — 80% of truck drivers are over the age of 45, while 23% of petroleum drivers are over the age of 55.
- Age requirements — drivers must be 21 for an interstate CDL and 23 to deliver hazmat.
- Certifications — hazmat and Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) training and certification are required at each petroleum or chemical loading facility.
- Image issue — lifestyle of truck drivers is still not desirable in the eyes of the general public.
Ernesto Gaytán Jr., who recently became the new chairman of the Texas Trucking Association (TXTA), said addressing the driver shortage is one of his biggest goals. Gaytán, who is the general manager of Laredo, Texas-based carrier Super Transport International, became chairman of TXTA in July.
“The driver shortage is a big problem for the United States and for Texas. We’re seeing a lot of people move into Texas, which means there’s more of a need for drivers for trucking more goods across the state,” Gaytán said.
Gaytán said the trucking industry needs to do more to reach younger people and show that drivers can make a good living almost as soon as they get started.
“We need to reach out to high schools, get trucking simulators into schools and funding for scholarships, funding for truck driving schools and help people get their CDL,” Gaytán said. “This is a good job and is something that you can do, with starting pay around $50,000 in some places right out of high school.”
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