Dave Samuelson is totally thrilled with his new job driving a fuel truck to deliver gasoline to stations around Chattanooga, Tenn.
He gets to go home to his farm every night, unlike long-haul trucking where you can drive for days. That means he can feed his goats. He can't complain about the pay — especially since he got a nearly 40% pay increase this year.
And he certainly loves how easy it is to find work right now. If you have the right kind of commercial driver's license, he says, "Good lord ... you can write your own ticket."
This is what it looks like to be at the heart of one of America's big pandemic labor crunches.
The companies that transport fuel to gas stations are scrambling to find qualified drivers to deliver every shipment. And this year, because they can't find enough drivers in places like Colorado, Iowa, and the Pacific Northwest, a scattering of gas stations have briefly run dry.
The outages weren't prolonged or widespread, but a hiccup in such an essential supply chain can be worrying — not to mention odd, given that there's no shortage of gasoline in the country.
"We have plenty of gasoline, and refiners could produce a lot more if they needed to, but it just can't get there," says Brian Milne, who tracks refined fuels for the data analysis company DTN. He first noticed the phenomenon in the spring, before the Colonial Pipeline shutdown brought fresh scrutiny to the security of the national fuel supply chain.
Fuel hauling is specialized and dangerous work
At the beginning of the pandemic, demand for gasoline dropped sharply. So it's no surprise that a lot of fuel haulers were either laid off or just retired.
This year, as demand for gasoline rose again, companies have struggled to replace those drivers as quickly as they need to.
A big part of the problem is that driving those big silver tanker trucks is specialized work requiring extra training and qualifications. The liquid sloshing around inside the tank makes a truck more challenging to drive. And hauling gasoline, in particular, is dangerous — drivers are essentially toting a bomb down the freeway because in the event of a crash, the tanks can explode.
A big bump in pay for fuel haulers
Drivers like Samuelson have reaped the benefit of this high demand. When Samuelson went to school for his commercial driver's license last fall, he had 10 job offers before he even graduated. And he was immediately hired to haul fuel, which is highly unusual. Most companies usually hire drivers with several years of experience hauling other cargo before training them to drive tanker trucks.
Companies are boosting pay to attract drivers. Samuelson reports that his guaranteed weekly pay has increased nearly 40% since this January, to an equivalent of $78,000 a year, and rival companies in the area have also offered raises.
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), a trade group representing truck drivers, says that some fuel haulers are looking to make six figures this year, thanks to the recent increase in wages.
Patrick de Haan, the head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, says this will likely affect gas prices but not by much.
"We're talking about something that would be negligible, less than a 2-cent-a-gallon impact," he estimates. There are many other factors, like the high price of crude oil, keeping gas prices high right now: The boost in driver pay is just a drop in the gasoline tanker.
A history of poor working conditions and stagnant pay
For decades, companies across the trucking industry have complained of a lack of available drivers. In response, drivers' groups like OOIDA have long said the problem is stagnant pay and poor working conditions, not a labor shortage.
Still, little changed over the years. Turnover was high, recruiting was hard, and pay failed to keep up with inflation.
Now, at least in the fuel hauling sector, the situation has shifted. Some companies are actually putting real money on the line to solve the problem.
But for some truckers, even a boost in pay just isn't worth it.
"I wouldn't even consider it," says Brad Zeilinger, who has been trucking for more than 30 years. He's hauled fuel before, but never again, he says. In addition to the danger, the licensing is a hassle and the hours can be rough.
"They couldn't afford me, let's put it that way," he says.
Frozen food is more his style now, and he's got an eye on retiring in a few years. And the question now — not just for fuel hauling, but for the entire trucking industry — is whether higher pay will be enough to attract a new generation of drivers.
"The young people don't want to do this job anymore," he says. "My generation is on the way out the door."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Gas stations across America rely on truckers to deliver gasoline. Their work is dangerous. They're basically towing a bomb down the freeway. A tank could explode in a crash. Don't you think about that when you're driving near one of them on the highway? NPR's Camila Domonoske reports these jobs are critical. And companies are having trouble filling them.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Something unusual has been happening this year. Across the country - Colorado, Iowa, the Pacific Northwest - scattered gas stations have run out of gasoline. They weren't big shortages or long shortages. But a hiccup in something so essential can be worrying, not to mention odd.
BRIAN MILNE: Why would there be a shortage? We have ample amount of gasoline.
DOMONOSKE: That's Brian Milne, who tracks refined fuels for the data analysis company DTN. To find the answer, look behind the wheel of a big, silver tanker truck. This is a job that requires special training. And a lot of qualified drivers left the industry when demand for gasoline dropped last year. There wasn't work for them. Now companies have been scrambling as demand roared back.
DAVE SAMUELSON: All these companies, you know, we can't get enough people in seats. It's just - people just don't want to do it.
DOMONOSKE: Dave Samuelson lives in Chattanooga, Tenn. He's relatively new to fuel hauling. And he knows exactly how much demand there is for workers like him. Just last fall, he went to school to get his commercial driver's license.
SAMUELSON: When I was going through school, I had 10 or 11 job offers before I graduated.
DOMONOSKE: And right away, he was hired to haul fuel. That's almost unheard of. Companies typically look for experienced truck drivers to train for this specialized work. Then there's what happened with his pay.
SAMUELSON: It has really, really jumped. I know our pay where I'm at, it's gone up about 40% since January.
DOMONOSKE: Forty percent. Now he's guaranteed at least 78 grand a year. And other companies are also offering big raises and incentives. That's remarkable because for years now, companies have struggled to attract and retain drivers. But they mostly didn't raise pay, certainly not like this. At this point, you might be wondering, wait, is that going to push gas prices up? Patrick de Haan is the head of petroleum analysis at Gas Buddy. And he says, not by much. But it does have an impact.
PATRICK DE HAAN: We're talking about, you know, something that would be negligible, less than a two cent a gallon impact, but certainly.
DOMONOSKE: There are a lot of other factors keeping gas prices high right now, especially the price of crude oil. But there's another question, too. Will these pay raises be enough to attract new drivers? Samuelson is very happy with his new gig. He says the pay is great. And he loves that he's back home on his farm every night. But hauling fuel is dangerous. Getting licensed is a hassle. And the hours can be rough. So even with higher pay, some experienced drivers just don't think it's worth it.
BRAD ZEILINGER: I wouldn't even consider it. No. They couldn't afford me. Let's put it that way.
DOMONOSKE: Brad Zeilinger has been trucking for more than 30 years. He's hauled fuel before. But never again, he says. Frozen food is more his style now and, pretty soon, retirement.
ZEILINGER: The young people don't want to do this job anymore. And my generation is on their way out the door right now.
DOMONOSKE: This is a challenge for the entire trucking industry, not just fuel hauling. And the question now is whether higher pay can attract a new generation of drivers.
Camila Domonoske, NPR News.
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