Kevin Matt - fuel story

Kevin Matott, a driver for Gillespie Fuels in Northfield, poses next to a fuel truck recently.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has issued a Regional Emergency Declaration that allows fuel delivery drivers to exceed the federal limit on the number of hours they can drive their trucks.

The waiver, which was issued Jan. 18, runs through Feb. 2. The states included are Vermont, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

“That’s good news,” said Matt Cota, executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association. “That will make sure the fuel needed to heat our homes gets delivered.” A similar emergency declaration was issued last year, he said.

The declaration was issued in response to both the frigid temperatures and the shortage of fuel delivery drivers. Federal rules impose several restrictions including limits on the total hours per-day and hours per-week drivers can be on the road. When an emergency declaration is declared, the rules on the driving hours are not enforced for drivers covered by the waiver.

“Thankfully, Vermont’s fuel suppliers have been able to keep tanks full, despite the shortage. Much of that can be attributed to the fact that most fuel dealers are small owner-operated companies and when the weather gets cold these owners are not in the office. The person whose name is on the truck is in the truck delivering fuel,” Cota said.

Part of the problem causing the shortage of drivers, according to Karen Gillespie Korrow, owner and president of Gillespie Fuels of Northfield, is too few young people are interested in driving fuel trucks.

“I don’t know why we are having such a hard time finding young drivers. It’s a really good job. The pay is good and they get full benefits including health insurance, vacation time and retirement,” she said.

The shortage of qualified drivers is not new and is not limited to Vermont nor is it just a problem for fuel dealers.

“The shortage of CDL (Commercial Drivers License) drivers is the single biggest problem in the transportation industry,” said Robert Sculley, executive director of the Vermont Truck and Bus Association.

According to the American Trucking Association, more than 51,000 CDL drivers are needed nationwide and that number could triple over the next decade. And the shortage is even worse for fuel delivery drivers, Cota said, because in addition to needing a CDL, fuel drivers also need several other certificates including a certificate to deliver hazardous materials.

There are 21,814 Vermonters with a Class A or Class B Commercial Driver’s License, but only 1200 of them, less than 6 percent, have a Hazardous Materials Endorsement, Cota said.

“The last five years have been difficult and the last two really difficult,” said Chris Keyser, general manager at Keyser Energy in West Rutland. Keyser Energy has enough drivers this winter, he said, in part because two drivers who retired last year are back driving for his company.

In past years, when Keyser needed drivers for the winter, he would place an advertisement in the newspaper in August and easily get enough drivers before the winter rush. Now he must start planning in May for the following winter.

“I hired a young guy in May and it took him six months to get all the certificates he needed,” Fuel delivery drivers need a CDL, a tanker certificate, a hazmat endorsement and an air brakes certificate, he said.

“The rules are at the federal level, so there is nothing we can change here in Montpelier. There is an effort to change the hours of service requirements in Congress to allow CDL operators to work longer days. Those changes would be very helpful with our existing workforce, but it doesn’t change the fact that we still need more people to join our ranks in the trucking industry,” Cota said.

Congress should consider lowering the minimum age to get a CDL to 18, Cota said. “The 18-20-year-old group has the highest rate of unemployment of any age bracket. Having the age minimum of a commercial truck driver set at 21 eliminates a large pool of competent workers from filling open positions.”

Also a problem for the fuel industry is the that need for drivers is not consistent throughout the year which can make hiring difficult. “Most of our deliveries happen during the 90 days from December through February,” Cota said. One possible solution, he said, could be having fuel dealers share drivers with construction and paving companies who need most of their drivers in the warmer months.

“There might be an opportunity for the two industries to work together,” he said. One obstacle is most drivers who work for the state’s construction and paving companies do not have hazardous material certificates.

“VFDA is working with the Vermont Department of Labor and the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles on developing ways to promote truck driving as a viable employment option, to provide ways for seasonal industries to share drivers and to make access to the testing and certification services as easy as possible,” Cota said. One issue that must be resolved with job sharing is determining how the employers woulds share liability insurance and unemployment benefits.

There is no magic solution that will totally solve the problem, Sculley said, but one thing the industry must do is recruit more women. According to the national Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprise 47 percent of the nation’s workforce but only six percent of CDL drivers and that number is even lower for the fuel industry.

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