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Tight Supply Of Truckers Leaves A Few Gas Stations Dry

A driver exits the yard after filling up his gas tanker truck at Marathon Oil on May 20 in Salt Lake City.
George Frey
Getty Images
A driver exits the yard after filling up his gas tanker truck at Marathon Oil on May 20 in Salt Lake City.

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."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Domonoske
Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.