Fuel’s Gold

| July 02, 2012

Owner-operators find big money and good schedules working the oil and gas services boom.

 

In early 2011, Jimmy Lessley took three trucks and tank trailers and formed Lessley Services to run crude and natural gas condensate for Trans Montaigne Crude Products Group. “Now we’re running 36 trucks,” he says, all owner-operators, plus a 2006 Kenworth W900 daycab that he runs.

Kristin Stump says her typical day, if starting empty, begins with a run to a rail yard where sand is loaded into her pneumatic dry-bulk trailer. Driving small roads, typically, in West Virginia, she’s escorted to the well site, where sand is loaded into a storage bin. In a five-day work week, “I doubt if we do much more than 800 miles,” she says.

The success of Lessley and others who’ve transitioned from other applications comes as companies leverage new technologies to produce oil and gas. These truckers are finding the perfect mix of above-average pay and job satisfaction working in the growing oil services industry. Rates can run as high as $3-plus per mile in flatbed to $5 or $6 working more locally with pneumatic tanks. A liquid crude tank-owning owner-operator team can earn up to $4,000 a day.

Around Williston, N.D., oil boom central for the past couple years, “we’re seeing on average 60 new trucking companies a month,” says North Dakota Trucking Association Executive Vice President Tom Balzer. Most have one to three trucks and many serve various aspects of the fracking operations, such as bulk water, sand and crude haulers. Others are flatbeds and dumps “for gravel hauling, housing materials” to account for the population boom.

“Anything that goes along with that kind of boom, you’ll see big growth,” Balzer says. For example, “Diesel sales here are unbelievable.”

Owner-operators and drivers are “making pretty significant money,” he says, “and trucking companies in that area are adding multiple drivers on a daily basis.”

Based in the similarly booming area around Williamsport, Pa., Landstar agent Brenda Hoover notes strong, though sporadic long- and regional-haul heavy-equipment volume both in- and out-bound from varied states, such as Texas, Pennsylvania and North Dakota. She’s seeing “a lot of flatbed freight and a lot of oversize equipment on double-drops, lowboys.”

Since 2010, when the boom really got going, Williamsport has ranked among the nation’s top 10 fastest growing metro areas. Truckers are following the money there.

Strong demand for capacity is bringing in competition as large as Schneider National. The large truckload company is hiring in Texas, especially, but also around North Dakota/Montana and in Pennsylvania, says Recruiting Vice President Mike Hinz. For now, it’s only company drivers, but “we’re looking at the potential for owner-operators,” he says.

“An average guy with average experience [whatever the application] can expect $60,000 minimum his first year,” says Hinz, “depending on how long he wants to work.” Pay in many cases is salaried, based on a five-day workweek. With bonuses for extra workdays, it could run as high as $90,000.

Owner-operator Tim Philmon has run brand-new Caterpillar pumping engines to energy sites in Oklahoma and Texas, as well as in the Northwest, on his flatbed. “They can’t build those $250,000 units fast enough,” he says.

Former team over-the-road owner-operators Kristin and Chris Stump joined Schneider as company drivers in February in separate 2012 Freightliner Cascadia daycabs. They mostly haul sand in pneumatic tanks to gas well sites in West Virginia. “It’s more money,” Kristin says, and “it’s a lot more stable.” Hauls are short, meaning easy home time. The Stumps moved to Pittsburgh to join the operation.

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