In the Keystone State, It’s Trucking or ‘Fracking’

Many truckload carriers are pumping money into driver recruitment and training programs and still say they’re having trouble finding enough drivers. But the depth of the driver shortage may have a lot to do with a company’s size and location.

In Milton, Pa., Ed Ferguson has more than 200 truck drivers on the road and a stack of resumes and letters from would-be drivers on his desk. The field operations manager for Watsontown Trucking, a 240-truck company, isn’t feeling a shortage.

“We put ads in a lot of papers and we get a lot of phone calls,” said Ferguson, who’s been driving trucks since 1969. He heads out on the road for Watsontown, a truckload carrier that’s been operating in Central Pennsylvania since 1941.

Watsontown may be based in Pennsylvania, but it hires drivers across the country, wherever it has business. “We’re looking in Tyler, Texas, we’re looking in Gillette, Wyoming,” said Ferguson. “We just hired a couple of people out of York (Pa.).”

Sometimes it’s better not to be the biggest company on the block. One reason Watsontown hasn’t felt the sting of the so-called driver shortage as badly as many of its larger competitors is that it is not hiring thousands of drivers a year.

In 2005, back in the last period of high driver demand, smaller companies such as Watsontown often found it easier to get an adequate supply of drivers.

Watsontown hired about 50 truckers in the first half of 2011, Ferguson said, and has close to 240 drivers. None are idle. “We keep getting more freight,” he said. The company has had to rent equipment on occasion to meet strong demand.

Pennsylvania is a prime trucking location, a gateway to the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. The Keystone State is home to more truckers than any state except Texas and California, according to 2010 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association pegs trucking as the state’s fourth largest employer. The state has about 66,000 big rig drivers, according to the BLS, accounting for 4.5 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million Class 8 truck drivers in 2010.

The biggest competition for truck drivers in Ferguson’s part of the state comes from natural gas companies using hydraulic fracturing to get gas from the Marcellus shale. Those companies need drivers to haul water used in the “fracking” process.

“We’ve had guys leave here for those jobs and come back,” he said. “When the gas companies need water for fracking, their drivers work non-stop. When they don’t need that water, they’re out of work. So the grass isn’t always greener.”

Contact William B. Cassidy at wcassidy@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter at @wbcassidy_joc

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