Former Pennsylvania Energy-Industry Employees Turn to Trucking as Jobs Continue to Dwindle

Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News

John Hank thought he would have a lifelong career in the oil and gas industry and be able to retire with his hobbies — furniture making, ginseng hunting, fishing and cooking Texas barbecue.

He worked long hours as a wireline operator for the multinational corporation Halliburton, lowering instruments, data collection systems and explosives into the ground at natural-gas well sites in more than eight states and overseas.

But at 60, he found himself back in school, learning how to be a truck driver and preparing to apply for his commercial driver license. His layoff in July 2015 preceded his layoff from another company in April 2016.

“The downturn in the industry was one of the deciding factors,” said Hank of Masontown, Pennsylvania. “I could see the oil and gas industry coming back, but the trend was extremely slow. … I don't know how much time I have to play with. I need to become a viable taxpaying citizen again.”

Hank learned about a government-funded scholarship program that covers the cost of retraining for displaced coal miners and other workers. Although he had years of experience driving a truck, he decided to update his credentials through the Shale Energy Institute, a CDL school in Bentleyville.

Hank enrolled in a five-week course and prepared to take his test. A graduate as of Feb. 3, he's optimistic he can make a good living and still have time for his hobbies.

“I told my wife, ‘I'll just drive a water truck until something turns around,' ” he said. “I have a few years to go for retirement. I really don't want to have to kill myself with something extremely labor-intensive because of my age.”

Hank is one of a growing number of older workers who have toiled in coal, steel or oil and gas, only to become casualties of the 2008 recession or the more recent industry downturns in western Pennsylvania. The low price of natural gas in the past few years has forced producers to cut back and has hurt “upstream” employment prospects as a result. Coal mines in southwestern Pennsylvania have similarly suffered, leading to the loss of once-secure jobs for hundreds of workers.

Forty-six mining-related companies, including Halliburton, have laid off employees in the past two years, according to a release from Pennsylvania CareerLink. A U.S. Department of Labor program, funded through the Appalachian Regional Commission and individual states, provides retraining money for miners and those working in ancillary fields.

“Many of these folks were coming from good-paying jobs, and it's been a tough transition,” said Bill Thompson, executive director of the Workforce Investment Board of Westmoreland-Fayette Counties.

The board has helped about 60 displaced workers, most of them from Fayette County, with its share of a $2 million retraining grant, Thompson said. Layoffs from mines led to layoffs from companies that serve the mining industry, so the numbers are expected to grow.

“You can't deny that, over these last few years, the industry has shrunk … and there was a ripple effect,” Thompson said.

Johnnie Roach, 47, of Waynesburg also went the route of truck driving as a second career after being laid off by R.G. Johnson Co. in mid-2016. A driller/hoist runner for seven years, Roach helped install air shafts for coal mines.

“Truck driving ain't going nowhere,” he said while waiting for a load in Aliquippa. “It's not going to disappear like the coal industry. I figure at least that's something I can retire on, if I have to. There's all kinds of people looking for drivers — everywhere you look.”

Like Hank, Roach got a scholarship to study for his CDL at the Shale Energy Institute. He is working as an over-the-road flatbed driver for PGT Trucking of Monaca, hauling steel coils, steel beams and steel pipes.

Jordan Marsteller, 31, of Washington said he “loved” his job installing ventilation shafts for coal mines in southwestern Pennsylvania. “I would go back in a heartbeat,” he said, “but there would need to be good evidence that the industry is going to last.”

Marsteller was laid off in 2016 and started going to his local Pennsylvania CareerLink office to look for work. He qualified for a full scholarship and studied for his CDL last fall. Now he is training to be a lineman for a trucking company that runs power to natural-gas well sites in western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio.

“I'm happy,” he said. “I'm in an industry that's not going anywhere any time soon. People are going to always need electricity.”

Benjamin and Amber Crawford are a husband-and-wife team who operate the Shale Energy Institute out of a nondescript office building off Interstate 70 in Washington County — Benjamin as a CDL instructor and Amber as a recruiter. They've seen a wave of older coal miners come through the school, followed now by jobless oil and gas workers.

Students often have to be put on a waiting list until they qualify for scholarship money. Although there is no lack of truck-driving jobs awaiting them when they graduate, workers have to be content with making less than they did in the coal industry or oil and gas.

“I get a lot of gentlemen who are 50 or older. They're interested in this industry because they know that there's jobs,” Amber Crawford said. “These guys don't have the time [for longer programs]. They have families to feed. They need to get back to work within months, or they lose everything. It's a pretty sad state, what's going on.”

A five-week CDL course costs $6,250 and qualifies the graduate to test for a Class A or Class B license, depending on whether the student wants to drive a heavier truck. The demand for drivers of water trucks and tri-axle trucks is outstripping supply, Benjamin Crawford said.

“We've got companies waiting in line. They can't get enough drivers,” he said, noting that the school also offers job placement services. “There's still a lot of work, but it's not what it was.” Many of the once-plentiful upstream gas industry jobs have been replaced by more specialized downstream jobs.

“The work is here, and it's going to stay here,” said Matt Seth Bland, who earned a Class A license and has been driving a water truck in Greene County for about a year. “There's going to be water drained out of those wells for years to come, so most of the stuff I've been doing is water hauling.”

Bland, 24, of Waynesburg worked in the oil and gas industry since graduating from high school and had “pretty much done it all” as a pipeline roughneck. A member of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 112, he was laid off in 2015 but remains hopeful he will be able to return to his union job.

“They told me it was going to be slow for a while,” he said.