By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
While many areas of the country still are lagging in their economic recovery, a booming oil and natural gas industry and an already low unemployment rate have local employers clamoring to attract prospective employees.
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Garfield County currently has an unemployment rate of less than four percent, compared to state and national averages of 6.1 and 8.3 percent, respectively.
The low number of available workers and a still-increasing demand for labor in the oil fields have industry employers and trainers working hard to fill job openings.
“We are seeing a huge demand, and a lot of it is due to the oil and natural gas industry growth,” said Teri Holle, director of business and industry services at Autry Technology Center.
Across the state, Career Tech campuses are increasing their class sizes and adding classes to train new workers.
Holle said Career Tech schools measure the need for professional training by polling companies across the state for number of job openings, starting salaries and skills needed to fill those positions. The surveys traditionally have been conducted annually, but recent expansion in the demand for oil field jobs has required more frequent attention.
“Employment has been so volatile in the last year, we’ve started doing those surveys every quarter,” Holle said.
Fueling the job openings
A survey last year of Garfield County and surrounding communities yielded more than 1,300 available jobs, most of those being in the oil and gas industry. Holle said by the next quarter that number had increased to 1,800, and by January it had increased again to 2,000.
Holle said some of those openings are due to “churning in the job pool,” or people moving from one job to another within the industry. But, she added, “we estimate about three quarters of the openings are new positions.”
Filling all of those job openings requires training a lot of people to move into new positions, including many workers who never before have been employed in the oil field.
“There are a lot of openings out there,” Holle said. “We’re trying to determine what jobs need to be filled, we’re trying to help people get jobs and get the training they need for those jobs. The biggest openings are for skilled positions, but there’s everything available down to entry-level operators.”
Holle said increased oil field activity and a resurgent manufacturing sector have boosted demand for welders and CNC machine operators.
“Both of those positions pay a good wage, and both require training,” Holle said. “We’re offering welding every chance we can, and we’re trying to add as much to our curriculum as we can to fill this need.”
Holle said Autry Tech has doubled its welding enrollment in the past year and has increased enrollment for CNC machine operators, heavy equipment operators and diesel mechanics.
But, the need right now for one type of worker is outstripping all others: the need for truck drivers.
“Truck drivers is probably the number one need,” Holle said. “Drivers of every type you can imagine are needed, but they’re primarily for the oil and natural gas field.”
Keep on truckin’
Autry Tech has partnered with Central Tech of Drumright to offer commercial driver’s license training. Central Tech currently brings instructors and three trucks to Enid every third month for a comprehensive 23-day CDL course.
But, the class is limited to six students per session and is not meeting the current demand for new drivers.
Travis Perrin, CDL and heavy equipment operator training coordinator at Autry Tech, said the CDL classes filled early for the February and May courses, and enrollment already is open for the July course.
In hopes of better meeting the demand, Oklahoma CareerTech currently is in the process of buying six trucks and trailers to establish a permanent CDL course at Autry Tech.
Perrin said a variety of students are drawn to the CDL course by good wages, ample job openings and the promise of local routes.
His recent courses have included everyone from experienced drivers to “people who have never even sat in a truck before.”
The one thing they all seem to have in common: They’re attracted to an industry that now, on average, is paying entry-level drivers $40,000 per year.
“There’s a lot of people who are either looking for a new career or they’re retired and aren’t ready to head for the house yet, and they’re looking at the demand for CDL drivers, and the pay that goes along with it is sparking a lot of interest,” Perrin said. “And, in a lot of the oil field truck jobs around here, you’re home every night. Most of them are day runs or two-day runs.”
Experience is needed
While prospective drivers may be drawn to oil field trucking by prospects of good wages, many of the open positions require years of experience and advanced qualifications.
Nowhere is that more true than in the world of tanker truck driving.
“Tank truck drivers aren’t born, they’re made, and not every truck driver can be a tank truck driver,” said Greg Hodgen, president and chief operating officer of Groendyke Transport.
Groendyke operates more than 1,000 tanker trucks at 31 locations spread between 12 states.
Hodgen said increased activity in the oil and gas industry has increased demand for tanker truck drivers faster than they can be trained.
“It’s certainly an issue that has affected us around the country,” Hodgen said. “A lot of our facilities are in areas where these plays are active, and it has affected our pool of available applicants.”
He said recruiting tanker drivers “is much more difficult now, particularly in the southwest U.S. and Rocky Mountain areas.”
“Finding qualified applicants is more difficult, not only in being able to find skilled drivers but also in the availability of skilled mechanics and maintenance personnel.”
Hodgen said it’s difficult to meet a surging demand for tanker drivers because it takes years for a truck driver to attain the skills and certifications needed to drive tank trucks, especially hauling hazardous materials.
Drivers must be at least 23 years old, be a U.S. citizen, pass a federal background check to be eligible for a haz-mat certification and be able to obtain an tanker certification.
“All of those things start to narrow down the field of available drivers,” Hodgen said. “The big kicker is they have to have the experience needed to pull a tanker. Pulling a tanker is a lot different than hauling a van full of dry freight, and there’s a certain level of experience required.”
Hodgen said the average age of hazmat tanker drivers is in their early 50s, reflecting the time and experience required to fill the job.
And, Hodgen said, demand is growing faster than new drivers can reach the threshold required to drive a tank truck.
“We can’t meet the demand ... we have more opportunities than we can take advantage of,” Hodgen said. “If safety is a value, then it doesn’t change, and you view all of your applicants through that prism. And, if your applicants don’t meet your standard, which is pretty high, you can’t hire them.”