Truckers with 35,000 openings seek jobless oil workers

U.S. oil-company job cuts that cost machinery operator Drew Sanford his spot at Halliburton Co. are shaping up as a boon for truckers desperate for big-rig drivers.

Already equipped with a commercial license, the 30-year-old Sanford left North Dakota and landed at Oklahoma City-based Stevens Trucking Co. He is sometimes on the road as long as four days at a stretch, but the working conditions are good, he said, and “I’ll probably just stick here for a while.”

His career path is one that his new industry would like to see repeated. As a resurgent U.S. economy fuels demand for cargo shipments and sharpens competition for workers, mass firings in the oil patch amid the collapse in crude markets may help trucking companies ease an estimated shortage of 35,000 long-haul drivers.

“There are a lot of happy truckers out there except for one issue, and that issue’s the truck-driver shortage,” said Bob Costello, chief economist at the Arlington, Virginia-based American Trucking Associations. “They have a lot more freight they could be hauling and they’re just having a hard time finding the drivers to fill those trucks.”

Attracting and retaining drivers is one of the biggest challenges for long-haul trucking companies, which can see annual driver turnover of more than 100 percent, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Lee Klaskow and Talon Custer.

Drivers Available?

With the global oil industry poised to cut 50,000 or more jobs, over-the-road truckers could see 10,000 to 12,000 drivers become available for work, according to Brad Delco, a Stephens Inc. analyst in Little Rock, Arkansas. The companies are vying for workers in a U.S. economy forecast to grow 2.6 percent this quarter, which is also creating other, more-desirable positions than steering 18-wheelers on trips far from home.

Some oil-and-gas veterans have started to fill driver academies at Swift Transportation Co., Chief Executive Officer Jerry Moyes said on a Jan. 29 conference call. Covenant Transportation Group Inc. also reported seeing some workers migrating from oil jobs, as did Celadon Group Inc.

For Sanford, the oil patch’s struggles made job losses look inevitable, as he survived one round of Halliburton dismissals only to be caught in a second wave near the end of 2014.

“You kind of know it’s coming too, once the oil prices drop and people start laying down rigs,” he said. “Everyone anticipates it, you just kind of hope to make the cut.”

Road Trips

Being away from home has long been a drag on truckers’ ability to fill driving jobs, especially at the companies that make the longest hauls and pull trailers typically carrying goods from just one customer. Driver shortages are so longstanding that they’re tracked by consultants and trade groups like the ATA, which estimated the 35,000 shortfall.

That’s why Indianapolis-based Celadon doesn’t expect the increase in over-the-road truckers to be that large, according to Joe Weigel, director of marketing and communications.

Truckers may see more workers start trickling into driving academies over the course of the year, according to Todd Fowler, a KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc. analyst in Cleveland. The industry might start to see benefits in the second half once former oilfield employees obtain commercial licenses and complete the typical four to eight weeks of training and searching for a job, he said.

Driver Competition

“There’s friction to any sort of job change,” Fowler said in a phone interview. He estimates in a Jan. 26 research note that the industry could see 1,250 to 6,000 additional drivers.

Truckers faced oil-patch competition for drivers in recent years as domestic exploration and production surged along with the price of West Texas Intermediate crude, which still topped $100 a barrel in June. Oil companies offered lucrative, short-haul jobs that let employees get home to family and friends at night. That added to recruiting hurdles for traditional long-haul operators, according to Stephens’s Delco.

After crude prices fell by more than half to about $50 in the past month, oil companies began cutting spending by 30 percent to 40 percent. A Baker Hughes Inc. tally of working oil-drilling rigs has dropped by more than a third since an October peak.

That’s forced oilfield-services company Schlumberger Ltd. to cut 9,000 jobs and Baker Hughes to predict the elimination of 7,000 positions this quarter. Halliburton, the world’s largest provider of hydraulic fracturing services, announced Feb. 10 that it was cutting as much as 8 percent of a global workforce of more than 80,000.

Trucking companies will still need to compete with construction and manufacturing industries vying to attract the newly unemployed as job openings reach an almost 14-year high. That’s made it even more difficult for truckers to recruit and retain drivers, KeyBanc’s Fowler said.

“As we’ve seen unemployment tick down, we’ve seen this ongoing driver shortage that’s always in the background start to become more prevalent,” Fowler said. “Even if we see a few more drivers come in, we go from being very tight to being less tight.”