Oklahoma

Economy, Energy, Natural Resources: Policy to People

In Oklahoma and Around the Country, the Open Road is Always Hiring

Joe Wertz / NPR StateImpact

Jonathon Stevens drives a truck for Glass Operating Group in Newkirk, Okla.,which delivers flour to bakeries around the state. Stevens, who's been a commercial driver for 20 years, says the job brings steady pay and family difficulty.

Being a truck driver isn’t easy, but becoming one is relatively simple in Oklahoma.

State unemployment is nearly double what it was before the recession, but motor carriers here are almost always hiring.

Where did all of Oklahoma’s truckers go?

Most adults in Oklahoma are a four-week course, a commercial driver’s license and a clean drug test away from an interview with almost any motor carrier in the state.

Pay for entry-level truckers is good — up to $40,000 a year, which is well above the state average.

The shortage isn’t limited to Oklahoma. Throughout the United States, there’s a growing gap between cargo demand and the supply of commercial drivers. With the growth in freight expected to quadruple driver growth, researchers estimate the shortage could reach 300,000 full-time positions this year.

Oklahoma Commercial Driver’s Licenses 2007-2010

Source: Oklahoma Department of Public Safety

The number of commercial driver's licenses has increased steadily in recent years.

In Oklahoma, the number of truckers is decreasing while the number of potential truckers is rising. According to Department of Public Safety data, the number of Commercial Driver’s Licenses has increased in recent years.

But the number of delivery, light, heavy and tractor-trailer drivers in Oklahoma is going down, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show.

Truck Drivers in Oklahoma 2007-2010

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

The number of truck drivers in Oklahoma is declining.

So why are there more seats than drivers?

ENERGY

Energy is booming, here in Oklahoma and throughout the region. And almost everything that comes in and out of a drilling site is carried on the back of a semi-trailer.

The oil and gas industry needs a lot of trucks and drivers, which is good for the trucking industry. But the energy boom is also soaking up a lot of the driver pool, Oklahoma motor carrier owners say. That’s a good thing if your trucking company is contracted by an oilfield services company like, say, Halliburton, for a Chesapeake Energy drilling operation.

Joe Wertz / NPR StateImpact

A driver for Glass Operating bangs on the side of his trailer with his hammer to determine how much flour has been unloaded.

But what if you haul flour?

That’s the bulk of the business at Glass Operating Group in Newkirk, Okla., which hauls flour to bakeries around the region and state, including Wonder Hostess in Oklahoma City and Bama Pie Company in Tulsa.

“We’re short three guys right now,” says Ike Glass, the company’s president, mirroring a need shared by every one of about a dozen Oklahoma trucking companies StateImpact contacted for this article.

As it is in other industries, energy jobs are often the best jobs — even when it comes to trucking.

“We’re short on drivers anyway, and there’s a tremendous oil and gas play in Oklahoma, and they need a lot of drivers,” says Dan Case, executive director of the Oklahoma Trucking Association.

Energy companies often pay drivers more, Case says. “People are going to go where the money is,” Glass driver Jonathon Stevens says while unloading whole-wheat flour at an Oklahoma City bakery.

On the national level, drilling jobs in places like North Dakota have attracted truckers with the lure of better pay, says Daniel Murray, vice president of research for the American Trucking Research Institute.

Joe Wertz / NPR StateImpact

Steven's dog rights shotgun in the cab of his tractor-trailer.

But the real perk, Stevens says, is the distance, or, rather, the lack of it.

In Oklahoma, most energy industry trucking jobs are regional, not cross-country. The routes are closer to home, which means more family time — the lack of which is probably the No. 1 complaint among truckers.

“We need the energy sector — we’re all glad for it,” Glass says. “But they’re taking our people.”

REGULATION

In December 2010, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration rolled out Compliance Safety Accountability, a program of new federal safety rules that profiles motor carriers and drivers according to compliance.

Officially, the federal government’s CSA program was designed to better identify safety problems and high-risk crash behavior. Ultimately, to reduce the number of deaths, injuries and large truck and bus crashes.

Practically, trucking companies say the new regulations have helped further drain the increasingly shallow pool of commercial drivers.

The CSA is data-driven and relies upon inspections. Some of the metrics are behavioral: limiting the amount of driving time to cut down on driver fatigue, for example, which has an obvious link to highway safety. Others — like vehicle and cargo maintenance rules — are more complicated, truckers and motor carrier owners say.

Joe Wertz / NPR StateImpact

Steve Nettleingham, operations manager for McCorkle Truck Lines in OKC, says federal regulations shrink the already limited pool of commercial truck drivers.

Motor carriers don’t want to employ unsafe drivers, but now trucking companies are effectively scored on how clean their drivers’ records are.

Motor carriers are effectively ranked by their CSA scores, which are the first thing a company looks at when it’s soliciting bids for a trucking contract, says Steve Nettleingham, operations manager for McCorkle Truck Lines’ Oklahoma City hub.

And while major violations — crashes, speeding tickets, unsafe and fatigued driving — are part of those scores, so are things like improperly inflated tires, broken marker lights and inadequate windshield wiper fluid.

Drivers are expected to inspect their tractor-trailers regularly to look for any maintenance or safety issues. And whether the truck itself is owned by the driver or the company they drive for, it’s the driver’s responsibility not to operate a tractor-trailer that’s poorly maintained.

It sounds simple, but it’s not, Nettleingham says.

“This is a low-margin business that’s heavily affected by costs that change a lot,” he says from his office in southeast Oklahoma City. “Because of fuel prices and other costs, carriers are always watching that line and looking for ways to stretch their expenses.”

The recession narrows those already slim margins, Nettleingham says, and carriers look for ways to save money. Like on maintenance, for example. Skimping on maintenance means more time between tire changes and equipment replacements.

“Some companies who would ordinarily change out a slightly frayed brake hose might decide to put it off,” he says. Drivers then run the risk of getting a violation during an inspection, which in turn weighs in on the carrier’s CSA score.

Truckers don’t want to drive with unsafe equipment, but it’s often impossible to avoid hitting the road without a potential infraction, Stevens says.

He points to a crack on the bottom of his windshield. It’s not blocking his view of the road or spreading to the rest of the glass, but he’s risking a write-up. The problem? A small rock hit his windshield at 4 p.m. that Saturday. “Nobody’s open on Saturday night or Sunday,” he says. He made an appointment to get it fixed Monday afternoon — the earliest available — but the result was two full days of driving with an infraction.

If Stevens is stopped by a Highway Patrol trooper or inspected at a weigh station, “They’re going to write me up,” he says.

“Is that fair? No. But that’s the reality.”


StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Comments

  • http://www.lifeasatrucker.com/ Hervy Christmas

    Great article. You have a pretty good eye on what we deal with out here. For those who are reading and wondering how much of a problem this is or if it is isolated to one company.

    It is an industry wide problem that, as explained creates a catch 22 situation. In addition to what is mentioned, when you go in the shop for these things it can also mean time off of the road.

    It’s a no brainer for something like a windshield that is cracked all the way across your line of sight. For a small windshield crack like he is talking about, you should not be written up, because it is not in your line of sight.

    If it was in your line of sight be advised, DO NOT let the company talk you into driving across the country to get the windshield replaced. I once used to try and help save the company money by getting back in to the terminal to get such things fixed. We have all driven with cracked windows in our cars or even in the truck before.

    Most windows are made to withstand the pressure even while cracked. Well that doesn’t cut it.
    Fact is it is weaker and increases chances of something going wrong. The other important fact is that your license is on the line because, as stated you will accumulate points on you personal record and once you reach a certain number within a year you can’t even drive.

    The company couldn’t do much for you if they wanted to.

    So it is noble of you to want to be a team player with the company but not by taking risks on safety or dinging up you CDL. Be a team player with making your appointments on time, taking loads you might not like to take when they need you to. Etc.

    You have to stand up and let them know you expect to run legal, so they won’t try you as much. Be advised that at some companies this may cause you problems. At some companies with less proficient dispatchers it may even cost you money.

    But if you don’t do it this way it may cost your CDLs. Once you get your experience of at least 1 year. If the company you are at is not running you properly, you are marketable to find a company that will treat you right. If your record is keep clean.

    Also realize that no company is going to be perfect for any driver. One company might be great for a driver living in one area and not so good for another driver living in another part of the country. These are things that you will learn as you go.

    The main thing is before driving making sure that you and your situation are compatible for the trucking lifestyle. The varies greatly depending on the type of trucking job that you get. As a new driver unless you are hired by one of the energy companies, you will be over the road. This is potentially challenging to any relationship, so keep that in mind.

    I put this page together to check out and report trucking companies that are forcing you to run illegal. These are resource’s that protect you for reporting and who to report to.
    http://www.lifeasatrucker.com/how-to-check-out-a-trucking-company.html

    • joewertz

      Great stuff, Hervy!

      Our broadcast story comes out next week and we’ll be filing another web story, probably more focused on the education component of all this.

      Were you trained at a driving school?!

      • http://www.lifeasatrucker.com/ Hervy Christmas

        Yes, I went to Alliance truck driving school in Dunn, North Carolina.

        I’ll be sure to check out the story when it comes out. This has been one of the better more accurate articles about trucking or the life of a trucker that I have seen done across the web. Thanks for that!

        ________________________________
        From: Disqus
        To: lifeasatrucker@yahoo.com
        Sent: Friday, March 9, 2012 10:06 AM
        Subject: [stateimpactok] Re: In Oklahoma and Around the Country, the Open Road is Always Hiring

        Disqus generic email template

        joewertz wrote, in response to Hervy Christmas:
        Great stuff, Hervy!

        Our broadcast story comes out next week and we’ll be filing another web story, probably more focused on the education component of all this.
        Were you trained at a driving school?!
        Link to comment

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