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
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
So why are there more seats than drivers?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”