“Jammin’ gears has got to be a fever

‘Cause men become addicted to the grind.

It takes a special breed to be a truck drivin’ man

And a steady hand to pull that load behind”

– from “Movin’ On” by Merle Haggard (1937-2016)

Like everywhere else in America, in the oilfield nothing moves without truck drivers.

Spokesmen for four Odessa companies say stricter U.S. Department of Transportation rules, ballooning insurance rates and the difficulty of young drivers’ qualifying for oilfield jobs is making it harder to stay in the business of hauling water and sand, moving drilling rigs and running such specialty vehicles as swab rigs, winch trucks, vacuum trucks and “hot shot” pickups to take urgently needed supplies to rigs, oil and gas plants, area cities and other customers.

A good driver makes $60,000 to $80,000 a year, but Trans Pecos Trucking Co. Operations Manager Mike Wahl said his company has had to specialize. “I need a road driver, not somebody here who moves rigs and goes home every night,” Wahl said.

“We assist rig movers, but we don’t move rigs anymore. Last week, we helped move a rig from west of here to Oklahoma. We have a couple of trucks hauling crane booms for large cranes on wind farms, taking 40-50 loads for one crane. It breaks down into that many pieces.”

Wahl said a successful aspirant will be “a person who cares about his job and is proud of what he does.

“You don’t want somebody who is just there for a paycheck and doesn’t care if he has that job for very long,” he said. “With the cost of liability insurance these days, we can’t hire just anybody.”

Wahl said achieving excellence takes motivation and experience. “Finding good drivers is difficult,” he said, adding that Trans Pecos is running six trucks.

“A lot of people are out there looking for work, but some aren’t cut out to be truck drivers. Our drivers are our team. The customers talk to me on the phone, but the drivers are the ones the customers see. If a driver is not presentable and professional and doesn’t do a good job, the customer is not going to call you back. What we thrive on is return customers.

“With the economy up in the air, we’re just trying to get by today,” Wahl said. “You can make money in the oilfield, but a lot of people are looking for something long-term.”

Odessa College and Midland College have truckers’ training programs for which financial aid is available.

Lance Holmes, owner of Champ Logistics & Hot Shot, runs two tractor-trailer rigs that haul frack sand and a one-ton pickup that pulls a 40-foot float trailer and moves heavy skid-mounted loads for some jobs.

“We haul general freight to rigs, take lubricants and compressor components to oil and gas plants and carry a lot of things to the cities of Odessa, Midland and Lubbock,” Holmes said. “You have to have a clean motor vehicle report with no drug use, DWIs or moving violations. The insurance companies have gotten very particular about who they want to insure. I’m paying $7,000 a month for insurance on three trucks.”

Asked if becoming a good driver is a matter of developing one’s inborn talent or of just learning and abiding by the rules, Holmes said, “Practice makes perfect.

“Nobody can get behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler and just take off. It takes years to become a skilled driver. I’ve been doing it for 13 years and it took me two or three years to learn how to drive a semi correctly. You’ve got to be on your toes at all times with a 360-degree view around you because people will pull right out in front of you and you don’t stop 80,000 pounds on a dime.

“When you hit something in a big truck, you don’t feel it. I had already passed a guy when he pulled out and went underneath my trailer duals. I saw it in my rear view, but I didn’t feel the impact.”

Holmes said truckers are often unappreciated, but are essential to the economy. “Truck drivers are treated like crap, bottom of the bucket scum, but without CDL (commercial driver’s license) drivers and semi drivers, America would stop,” he said.

Alan’s Hot Shot owner Alan Green is running two one-ton trucks and a one and three-quarter ton and he said it would be hard to continue if his two employees weren’t family members. “Most times, we’ve got 45 minutes to get somewhere, so we have to get to the load spot, get the material and be on our way,” Green said.

“The customers want you to keep them informed: ‘Did you get loaded, are you on your way and what is your ETA?’ We haul anything in the oilfield, pallets, water, pumps, motors, casing, anything they need to drilling rigs, frack locations, workover rigs, production wells and production fields. We serve the industry.

“We’re not as busy as we should be, but that’s probably from competition and people moving into the area. COVID and the variant are hampering things. You can’t get on a location with being vaccinated or having proof of a negative test within 48 hours.”

Green said companies once mostly hired drivers for company trucks, but owner-operators dominate the business now “because they can make a little extra money” with their own trucks. “The bigger trucks are hauling water and a lot of sand right now, especially around Kermit and Monahans,” he said.

E.L. Farmer & Co. General Manager Dave Musgraves said personal injury lawyers’ claims against the owners of 18-wheelers and their drivers have increased insurance rates to a nearly intolerable level. “You see all the billboards: ‘Hurt By a Big Truck?’ Musgraves said.

“They’ve really targeted in on the trucking industry and the juries are giving out nuclear-type verdicts, driving insurance companies out of Texas. Only six are still writing liability coverage for truckers.”

He said E.L. Farmer would hire more drivers if it could find them. “We haul things like casing, tubing, line pipe, machinery, wellhead equipment and production equipment,” Musgraves said.

“We have 75 owner-operators and a handful of company drivers working mostly in the Permian Basin, but sometimes going to Houston, East Texas and Oklahoma. All our trucks are diesels except for 20 hot shots.

“The big thing we have to tackle now is, how do we get young drivers into the industry, how do we fill the void? When we get a driver out of trucking school, he can’t get insurance without one year of experience. So they go over the road with a team driver and then come back into the oilfield. They can easily make $60,000 to $80,000 a year.”

Another obstacle, Musgraves said, is that drivers can get a CDL in Texas at age 18, but the minimum age in surrounding states is 21. “He could drive 800 miles across the state from El Paso to Texarkana, but he couldn’t go the last two miles into Arkansas,” he said.