Drug tests one barrier for Eagle Ford job seekers

SAN ANTONIO — While the Eagle Ford Shale holds out the promise of tens of thousands of jobs, many job seekers aren’t making the cut, while qualified workers are facing a bottleneck in obtaining credentials for trucking jobs, experts said.

Employers say they’re rejecting 30 percent to 40 percent of all shale job applicants because they can’t pass a pre-employment drug test, said Leodoro Martinez, who moderated a panel discussion about workforce issues at last week’s Texas Economic Development & Energy Summit. The audience included energy industry officials, elected officials,
public officials and economic development officials.

Drug use is “a family, school and community problem” that needs to be addressed but won’t be easily solved, said Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.

Doug Ridge, director of employer initiatives for the Texas Workforce Commission, agreed, saying drug use “is a big, big problem, a major problem.”

The problem isn’t occurring among all applicants, Ridge said after the panel discussion.

“I’m not seeing it in engineers or the professions,” he said, but he said it’s a problem among applicants for jobs on rigs or as truckers.

An audience member asked if students are being told that they could land a great job
in the shale — but only if they stay away from drugs.

Ridge cited a program called GeoFORCE, which encourages promising but at-risk students to avoid drugs while showing them the opportunities in the energy industry. The summer outreach program for eighth- through 12th-grade students for now is concentrating only on some Southwest Texas and Houston schools. It’s run by the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences.

“We hold that program out as a best practice,” Ridge said. “It’s a very impressive program, but it’s too small.”

A study by the University of Texas at San Antonio estimated that 20 counties in the Eagle Ford Shale supported 47,097 full-time jobs in 2011, a number that’s expected to grow to 116,972 full-time jobs by 2021.

For now, many of the jobs in demand are for truckers. And a pay range of $25,000 to $80,000 a year is attracting many applicants, according to Workforce Solutions Alamo officials. But even solid job applicants are being stymied by the licensing system, panelists said.

The whole process of getting the commercial driver’s license, or CDL, is backed up, said Martinez, who also is chairman of the Eagle Ford Consortium.

The Texas Department of Public Safety is responsible for handling commercial driver’s license applications.

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said that DPS “is addressing the increased demand for CDLs with our existing resources, and our examiners are processing them as quickly as possible.”
The department is expected to continue having to make do with existing resources. Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, said that because of budget cuts, he isn’t hopeful that the Legislature will be able to increase funding to help expedite applications.

Vinger said applicants could help streamline the process by scheduling their skills test online.

“The skills test is a critical requirement to ensure the proper certification of a commercial vehicle driver, which ultimately impacts the safety of all travelers on the roadway,” Vinger said.
vvaughan@express-news.net