Lew Higgenbotham, right, conducts a commercial driver's license test with Kevin Burns at American Professional Truck Driving School in Gnadenhutten. Burns has a job with Elyria Township and is getting his CDL-A license. Burns had to wait 30 days for his appointment because of an increase in people seeking their CDLs. The prospect of shale jobs are one reason for the increase. / Trevor Jones/CentralOhio.com
The expected Ohio oil and gas boom is going to make roads near wells swarm with trucks like bees to a hive. It's likely to cause headaches for at least a few, but for others the commotion is going to sound like opportunity beckoning.
The hydraulic fracturing process alone -- sometimes called "fracking" -- can require up to 1,000 truckloads of a water, sand and chemical mix. Plus, Ohio, with historically little in the way of oil production, doesn't have the pipelines to take oil away from the well.
Several of the students at the American Professional Truck Driving School in rural Tuscarawas County are optimistic that behind the wheel is where they will find the long-lasting and gainful employment that has eluded them.
"That is one that seems to be opening up for jobs," pupil Bill LaFollette, 60, said of oil- and gas-related trucking. "I have had serious problems even finding work in the area, or the money is not there."
LaFollette, a 60-year-old transplant from Oregon, said he thinks the chances and the pay are real with a commercial driver license, or CDL, thanks to oil and gas interests in the Utica Shale.
"There's a lot of jobs right now that are just waiting for us to get out of school," said another student, Bill Todd, a 48-year-old from Guernsey County.
Todd worked 18 years in a steel mill and more recently was in residential construction near Lancaster. Home builders have had a tough go of it recently, to say the least, but Todd thinks oil and gas trucking is different.
"There's opportunities all over," he said.
In the next year or two, drilling activity is expected to intensify in the Utica Shale, an organically rich rock formation a mile or more beneath the surface of much of eastern Ohio.
Rhonda Reda, executive director of Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program, said Ohio needs more middle-skill workers in many trades and CDL holders are "at the top of the list."
OOGEEP is funded by energy companies to promote a positive image of oil and gas development in the state. In a study released this past fall, the program predicted 200,000 jobs created as a result of Utica Shale development. Subsequent studies have been far more bearish.
"When we did the study, the average salary of skilled laborers (like truckers) was $55,000 a year," she said, not including overtime. "These are good-paying wages. That would depend on experience. These jobs include benefits, too."
Neighboring states West Virginia and Pennsylvania have about a two-year head start on development of their shale formation, the Marcellus.
One out of 10 jobs directly created by shale development is filled by a licensed truck driver, according to a recent study of Pennsylvania's shale rush by the Marcellus Shale Education and Training Center. Penn State University found the average driver in this field was making $44,700 in wages in 2010, or what amounts to more than $21 per hour.
In 2011, there were 3,700 more CDL holders in Pennsylvania than the previous year and 2,700 more in West Virginia, according to figures provided to Central Ohio.com by officials in those states.
Next door to the trucking school, Lew Higgenbotham runs the commercial driver's license testing facility. Higgenbotham, who co-owns both businesses with his father, Lewis, will ride shotgun as his 11 a.m. appointment navigates through the cones and the open road as parts of a test that can last an hour or more.
He's all booked for examinations through the middle of May and is hiring two part-time examiners to handle the increase.
"It's actually pretty amazing," he said. "I'm projecting that we'll need extra help."
But simply completing trucking school, which can cost $4,000 to $5,000, is not enough. Just like other jobs tied to the shale industry, candidates with oil-field experience, which knocks out a lot of Ohioans, are given preference.
Chesapeake Energy, which has the largest lease holdings in the Utica Shale, is looking for at least 18 months of recent driving experience, preferably hauling water or crude oil, a company spokesman said. A Class A CDL with a tanker endorsement is necessary and some trucking jobs will require a hazardous materials endorsement as well, according to Chesapeake.
Twitter at @RussZimmer