Owner Operator Oilfield Jobs: Pros and Cons
Like the rest of the trucking industry, there are many companies in the oilfields who prefer to hire owner-operators for their available jobs. And why not? Whether hauling crude, water, or sand, an oilfield company’s biggest expenses are payroll, fuel, insurance, and equipment maintenance. Doesn’t it make sense to try to pass off these expenses to each individual driver? For some companies, it certainly does. And that is why some companies prefer to work with owner-operators when and if they can.
Indeed many drivers, especially newer ones, see the higher gross pay rates that owner-operators can earn vs. what company drivers are paid and start thinking about buying their own rigs. Why settle for a mere $1,000 to $1,500 per week when owner-operators can make double these amounts or more?
First of all, unless you have many years of trucking experience and oilfield experience, you’d be foolhardy to consider becoming an owner-operator until you fully understand all of the risks involved. But before we go over the negatives of owner-operator oilfield jobs, let’s go over the positives:
- No slip seating – You drive your truck, no one else does!
- Work for who you want, when you want – Don’t like who you’re contracting for? Find another company to work with. Your skills and equipment are in demand. If any company that you hire yourself out to starts to slow down, you can simply jump ship to a busier firm.
- Have more control of your career and your future – You aren’t joined at the hip to any single company. You have a little more control over your destiny.
- Own your own equipment – Prefer a Peterbilt over a Freightliner? Wish you had a tricked-out sleeper berth, but no company will let you add your favorite gadgets to their trucks? Get your own tractor, and customize it as you see fit.
- Add additional equipment and grow your business – This is one of the major reasons why some drivers strike out on their own. They want to hire their own drivers, move their own loads, be their own bosses. And double or triple their income!
Ok, so there are some good reasons to be an owner-operator, especially in the oilfields. Make no mistake: there are plenty of drivers who have purchased or are leasing their equipment and are making fantastic incomes in the oilfields. However, there are plenty of reasons why many other drivers, even very experienced ones, remain company drivers. Here are some of them:
- No worries about maintenance – Ever been in a company truck when it broke down while under a load of crude (or anything else)? If you’re a company driver, you might get “breakdown pay” which can offset some of the productive time you lost while waiting for a service truck to come out and fix your truck. Veteran drivers know that when trucks break down, they tend to do so in the loneliest rural roads farthest from civilization. These predicaments result in the most expensive service calls, requiring heavy duty equipment like the rig in the photo above. Before you consider becoming an owner-operator, visit the service desk at any truck stop. Look over the charges for the simplest of services like oil changes or tire replacements. Those costs will directly impact your bottom line if you become an owner-operator. Not so if you remain a company driver.
- Your competition has better equipment than you, and access to drivers – You’ll be competing against larger, more connected companies for the same loads. And those companies can afford to lease or purchase late-model tractors and trailers. Unfortunately, most owner-operators start out by purchasing used equipment from some of those larger companies. Why do you think they are selling that equipment? And don’t forget, if some of those same larger companies are having a hard time getting drivers to haul their loads, how easy will it be for you to find drivers if you want to expand? Will you be able to offer competitive pay and benefits? You’ll be going against some big names in the oilfield industry, and they’ve outlasted smaller players that couldn’t hang on when oil production slowed.
- No chasing down loads or freight – Think all owner-operators have crude or sand loads falling at their feet? Think again. Unless you have built up a network of contacts over a number of years as a company driver, you will have some difficulty finding work when (not if) things slow down for the companies you contract for. Sure, slowdowns are bad for everyone, but they’re especially bad for owner-operators. Payments must be made for things like equipment and insurance whether the trucks are running or not. Now, granted, as the shale industry continues to boom, slow periods are not a huge concern. Yet, slowdowns can and will happen even in the busiest of industries. A smart and experienced owner-operator knows this, and plans accordingly.
- Fewer concerns about insurance, liability, or regulations – When you work as a company driver, your employer not only pays for your insurance, it has an office employee handling the purchasing, payments of, and paperwork related to that insurance. As well as the paperwork related to the ever-increasing numbers of rules and regulations that affect all drivers. As well as taking care of licensing and tags for the tractors and trailers each company has on the road. Guess who handles all of this work for owner-operators? That’s right: the owner-operators themselves.
- No need to take your work home with you – Unlike an owner-operator who will always have plenty of paperwork, scheduling, and accounting to deal with, a company driver is done for the day when the truck is parked. The company driver has to update his log books (even this isn’t always the case if he drives locally), fill out some load tickets, and check the fluids in his tractor. And that’s about it, for the most part. Not so an owner-operator, who has to handle all the paperwork that might otherwise be handled in the back office of an oilfield company.
- You have flexibility, too – Just like any owner-operator, you don’t have to work for a company that treats you badly or doesn’t pay you enough. As a CDL holder – especially if you have a clean driving record and experience – you can jump over to another oilfield employer fairly quickly if you feel you’ll earn more or receive better treatment.
The owner-operator game is not for everyone. In the fracking world, company drivers can make very good money without taking on the headaches that owner-operators deal with on a daily basis. On the other hand, hiring out loads to other drivers, while hauling a few of your own, can grow your income exponentially. It’s a personal choice, of course. But be aware that when you hear or read what owner operators are making in the oilfields, those figures come with new levels of risks and responsibilities. Again, consider becoming an owner-operator only after you’ve been driving for at least a few years. Then, talk to other owner-operators to get their input. Don’t just rely on what a company representative tells you!