By Tom McParland
John Kufleitner first saw a big upswing in heavy-duty truck sales at his Salem and Columbiana Chrysler Jeep Dodge dealerships a couple years ago.
That was the “first wave” of business the owner attributed to the oil and gas industry, and it happened when oil and gas companies swarmed the area, offering considerable signing bonuses to residents as they leased mineral rights for drilling.
The Utica Shale play was in its infancy. Drilling companies were eager to stake out land in a promising new play, and rural residents wanted to take advantage of the payouts, often totaling thousands of dollars.
“It seemed like everybody we sold a truck or a tractor to was a farmer,” Kufleitner said.
In the past year, that first wave has given way to a second, as out-of-state workers have moved into Carroll and Columbiana counties to staff drilling and construction operations in the area.
They came from Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, and they were looking to buy reliable diesel trucks.
“They need a workhorse, and that’s what they’re buying,” he said.
The workers, he said, are buying because they are just too hard on the vehicles to lease them, hauling heavy equipment, like air compressors and welding machines, to well pads every day.
The interest from individual workers has been good for business, and Kufleitner meets the demand by stocking his lot with 200 trucks at a time.
Still, only a few trucks have gone to the actual oil and gas companies because most companies moving into the area have relationships with dealers near their headquarters, and prefer to bring their own equipment with them.
But once the vehicles — tankers and heavy equipment, especially — are here, companies need qualified workers to operate and service them.
That’s why place like New Castle School of Trades has developed specific truck driving and maintenance courses, geared toward the industry, that funnel workers from the New Castle, Youngstown and Warren areas into the high-demand fields.
Oil and gas companies, seeking workers with mechanical experience and used to working long hours, are looking to hire graduates from the programs. Many of those students came to NCST as displaced manufacturing workers, farmers and military members.
NCST’s heavy-equipment, diesel-technician and commercial-driving courses — all run out of NCST’s satellite campus in Pulaski, Pa. — have a range of applications, said Kinorea Tigri, manager of the Pulaski facility and department chairwoman of the commercial truck driving school.
Tigri said NCST began meeting with industry representatives as the Marcellus Shale play took off in 2010, identifying demand and the specific skills needed to fill the holes.
“It really became evident that we could help support the industry by providing quality operators, drivers and technicians,” she said.
In the past two years, enrollment has spiked 30 percent to 50 percent each year.
NCST developed a 67-week course that teaches students to diagnose and fix the generators used to power operations in the field and the diesel engines used in heavy equipment and commercial trucks.
The class also provides students with training in commercial truck driving, so that they have a thorough understanding of the vehicles they will be repairing
Then there’s the heavy-equipment course, which teaches students to operate the machinery used to clear out and construct well pads, like forklifts, bulldozers, excavators, backhoes, dump truck and front-end loaders.
Students have the option of taking a 33-week full-time course or the 46.5 weekend program, based on their schedules. They learn how to read site plans, maneuver trailers and gain basic rigging skills, all while preparing to pass the test for a Class A commercial-driving license.
But graduates of NCST’s commercial truck-driving program are the most sought-after workers of all the programs. There is extraordinary demand for drivers with a Class A license who can safely operate the huge tankers that carry water, brine, sand and chemical to and from drilling sites, Tigri said.
“There’s more driving jobs than students coming through the program,” she said. “There’s a huge need.”
Driving a tanker takes more experience and skill than most other commercial trucks because the water in the 2,000 to 6,000 gallon tanks tends to push and pull the vehicle.
The 6.5-week program has one instructor for every four students, and the classes continuously run simulations to prepare the students for what they might encounter on the road.
Between 2011 and 2013, most of the students and jobs came from the Pennsylvania side of the border, but as drilling and infrastructure build-out has boomed in the southern part of the Utica, Tigri has seen that trend flip over the past year.
But for Wade Calderwood, general manager of Class A truck dealer Allstate Peterbilt in Youngstown, the influx of activity has had less of an impact than he expected.
When Allstate Peterbilt opened the Youngstown location two years ago, truck sales and repairs in the Marcellus Shale play had been hot for two years, as big oil and gas companies — and local businesses in supporting industries — bought up inventory.
“I don’t know that we’ve seen that here in Ohio,” he said.
The vast majority of Calderwood’s business comes from outside the oil and gas industry, though he has supplied equipment and parts to a handful of companies in the industry.
Meanwhile, parts and services sales have picked up substantially at the Allstate Peterbilt location in New Philadelphia, closer to the hotspot of the Utica Shale play.
Jesse Smitley, general manager, said he began selling tankers and heavy-duty equipment to companies out of the Southwest between 14 and 16 months ago.
“I hope business keeps picking up,” he said. “I hope they’re around for a long time. I think they will be.”
That would be just fine for Kufleitner and business at his Salem and Columbiana dealerships.
Then there’s the booming parts and service segment of the business at his Columbiana and Salem dealerships.
Kufleitner employs about 100 people between his two commercial dealerships, many of whom are tasked with supplying new parts and general maintenance as those vehicles rack up miles.
“We need people to service [the trucks],” he said. “The shale industry is responsible for some of these jobs.”