Even as the recession hammered the economy a few years ago, Harry Levy didn’t have a problem finding qualified drivers at his San Antonio trucking and construction company.
But that has changed as drilling has boomed in the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas. While the shale play is bringing jobs to San Antonio, it hasn’t been a boon for every business in the area.
“Before the Eagle Ford, but after the economic downturn, we still had plenty of qualified people looking for work,” Levy said. “But since the onset of activity in the Eagle Ford, we have had very few to no qualified (commercial driver’s license) drivers apply.”
A commercial driver’s license, or CDL, is a key requirement for many trucking jobs, both in San Antonio and in the shale.
The Levy Co. LP, which transports and installs highway construction signs and lights, requires a CDL for most jobs. The company needs workers who can drive to a job and then complete the work.
Workers capable of doing such a job “were never easy to get, but there were more people I could at least train, as long as they had the CDL,” Levy said.
The problem is showing up in Texas Workforce Commission data, which indicate fewer people in Bexar County are employed in oil-and-gas support jobs, which plummeted to 77 positions in the second quarter of 2011 from 535 in the second quarter of 2010. The numbers seem to indicate that workers have left jobs in Bexar for more lucrative positions in the shale.
“This looks like a drastic reduction considering that for all of 2010 the average employment was well above 500 jobs,” said Javier Oyakawa, senior economist at the Center for Community and Business Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute for Economic Development.
Oyakawa believes that as oil-field-service companies like Halliburton Co., Baker Hughes Inc. and Weatherford International Inc. establish a presence in the area, “the numbers may go up in the county.”
But that offers little consolation to businesses like The Levy Co. now. “The wheels aren’t falling off,” Levy said, “but it would be great if I had 20 people lining up at the door.”
Levy said he offers “decent wages, with benefits and retirement pay,” but at $12 to $13 an hour, his jobs can’t compete with oil-field service companies that pay $20 an hour, with signing bonuses that can surpass $2,000.
But Levy said he can offer something many trucking companies can’t: A chance for the driver to go home every night, and he’s willing to help employees attain a CDL.
The lure of driving jobs in the Eagle Ford Shale also has hurt Bowie Transportation Co. in San Antonio, which transports goods — mostly tequila, beer and pork rinds — just in Texas.
“I lost 18 drivers to it. It killed us,” said Michael Wimpy, the company’s dispatcher. “In less than three months, we lost half our fleet” of owner-operators, or independent contractors, he said.
The drivers left in April and May, and unfortunately for the company, that’s part of a seasonal trend that is prompted by more than job prospects in the Eagle Ford Shale, Wimpy said.
In the spring, some drivers are lured away when Bowie’s rivals promise them more miles and bigger bucks to haul goods to the 48 states. But when winter hits, some drivers return to San Antonio because they don’t want to cope with driving in harsh winter conditions, Wimpy said.
Rick Staller, president of Bee Trucking in San Antonio, said his company is seeing some drivers return to his company after leaving to take driving jobs in the Eagle Ford Shale.
“The money may be good and the incentives are good,” Staller said, but he’s been told the working conditions can be frustrating, with extended waiting times to get trucks unloaded.
Levy’s answer is to continue to recruit, and to hope some drivers return to San Antonio. “My hope is that there will be drivers who have left us for the oil field and find that it’s not what it’s cracked up to be.”