LAKEWOOD, Colo. — During a time when hitting the road becomes more common, a shortage in truck drivers is causing problems at some Colorado gas stations.
In the past two weeks, Nathaniel Mulhauser has spent more time turning people away than he’s used to.
“Premium, unleaded, whatever octane percentage you need — we’re out of it all,” said Mulhauser, a store clerk at the Circle K off of Kipling Street in Lakewood.
On Friday, outside the store, gas pumps were bagged and signs were posted that said, “out of gas and diesel… patiently waiting, sorry for any inconvenience.”
“I’ve seen them [drivers] pull up. They look at the pumps and sometimes they’ll drive away. Other times, they’ll come in and ask to be sure,” he said.
Friday isn’t the first time his station was without fuel for customers; last week people were also turned away.
“We had six days where we only had diesel. We had no unleaded, and we had no premium,” Mulhauser said.
Filling stations scattered across the Denver metro aren’t the only ones running on empty. Fuel outages have been reported at stations in Canon City and Pueblo.
“I’ve been told by my manager that this is all due to the fact there are not enough truck drivers to deliver the gas to all the gas stations that need it,” Mulhauser said.
Industry experts say a labor shortage in the trucking industry has contributed to supply chain problems.
“The truck driver shortage has been going on for several years,” said Harold Trent, director of the United States Truck Driving School Incorporated. “A lot of that has to do with the fact that the baby boomer drivers that are out there in their late 60s and 70s are starting to get out of it and go into retirement.”
Trent said he believed another contributing factor to the shortage is the COVID-19 pandemic.
Skyler McKinley of AAA Colorado said declining travel throughout 2020 drove the demand for gas down. Some truckers were laid off while others left trucking altogether to pursue jobs in different industries.
“They’ve moved on to other positions where they’re getting a little bit better pay, a little bit more home time, a little bit better benefits,” Trent said.
There’s other hurdles, too. To ship fuel, truck driver candidates must have a hazardous materials endorsement on their license.
“A lot of potential drivers are just not interested in hauling hazardous material because of the danger and nature of the job,” Trent said. “Or some candidates don’t quality. There’s a lot of things that can knock a potential candidate out of the hazardous section material of the CDL [Commercial Driver License] with regards to stuff that’s on their criminal background.”
Jack Buffington, a professor at the University of Denver and specialist in supply chain topics, said there are solutions to the labor shortage.
“There’s different marketing segments that trucking companies need to appeal to — women and people of color — because it’s been much of a male-dominated industry,” he said.
Buffington emphasized that finding more workers from different demographics will take time.
“The industry is continuing to try to market to get people from the military, to get people from trade schools, to get people from high schools, but it’s a difficult situation. It’s not something that can just happen overnight, and I would say probably over the next five years is really the key to solving the problem,” Buffington said.
Buffington and Trent agreed they don’t believe wages contribute to any industry shortfalls.
“The wages are there. The starting salary for a trucker can be up to $90,000, and if you have experience it can be over $100,000, so this is a really good job. Really good profession for people, but it requires licensing, it requires skill, it requires a way of life that not everybody wants to do” Buffington said.
“The money’s always been there,” Trent said.
Trent said even with current challenges, USTDS enrollment numbers leave him feeling optimistic.
“We’ve currently got four females in our class right now, and we’ve seen an average of maybe about six per month for female applicants ” he said.