Even as the trucking industry stages job fairs, raises driver incentives and retools benefits, booming activity in the Eagle Ford and other U.S. shale plays continues to strain the labor market for qualified tractor-trailer drivers. The explosion in domestic oil-and-gas activity comes as many baby boom-generation truckers coast into retirement. The American Trucking Association estimates the industry is now short 30,000 drivers. “We’re already facing a shortage, and it’s likely to grow,” says Terrance Pohlen, director of the Center for Logistics Education and Research at the University of North Texas. “All of the major carriers will tell you recruiting drivers is their No. 1 priority right now.” Pohlen calls the ATA’s driver-shortage estimate conservative, adding that he expects driver turnover to increase “significantly” through 2013 and 2014.
Production in the Eagle Ford and other formations will rise, and new plays such as West Texas’ Cline Shale soon will come into robust production. The Cline alone has the potential to yield 30 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Indeed, oil delivered to refineries by trucks increased 38 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. At present, there are 1,639 open jobs in the San Antonio metropolitan statistical area for tractor-trailer truck drivers, according to job-placement agency Workforce Solutions Alamo.
Adding to the problem, new federal regulations have cut the time drivers spend behind the wheel, decreasing productivity, experts say. And the improving economy is luring many away from the industry. “It’s been a tight market for two years, and it’s unfortunately going to continue,” says David Ainsworth Sr., president of Ainsworth Trucking in Robstown. “We’re competing with all these (oilfield) service companies that have moved into the area.” Ainsworth’s 100-truck fleet does most of its business in the Eagle Ford, where energy companies’ high wages have convinced many drivers to trade in big rigs for oil rigs.
Eight months ago, the company retooled its incentives and benefits packages. Among its new perks, it upped the signing bonus for qualified drivers of specialty vehicles such as winch trucks, doubling it to $10,000. But even those kind of benefits are no guarantee in this market, says Joe Monroe, CEO of Green Energy Oilfield Services. Even though Greenfield offers competitive health benefits and man camps at its three Eagle Ford yards, the company still contends with a 4 percent monthly driver turnover. “You’re kind of always focused on finding and hiring drivers,” Monroe says. “You really can’t lock someone in and be sure they’ll stick around.”