… by thinking about people you know who are driving for Uber or doing poorly paid jobs they hate, and asking if they’d have better lives as bus or train operators.
I’m serious. In the US, public transit is in grave trouble due to lack of staff. Here’s how bad it is at TriMet here in Portland.
TriMet would need to increase our current operator ranks by more than 300 to return service to pre-pandemic levels. In January, we reduced service by 9%, to better-match staffing levels; however, resignations, retirements, promotions and departures of operators for other reasons have continued to outpace hiring, leading to canceled buses and trains and system delays for riders.
Everything transit advocates have fought for could be destroyed by this problem.
Pay and benefits? A lot better than Uber!
TriMet has increased the starting pay for new bus operators to $25.24 per hour, and with regular, guaranteed pay raises, all operators earn $68,000 per year or more after three years on the job full time. In addition, TriMet bus operators receive a generous package of employment benefits, which includes no-to-low cost health insurance, life insurance, paid vacation and sick time, and a retirement plan with an 8% employer contribution. In addition, TriMet is offering all newly hired operators a $7,500 hiring bonus.
Plus there are very powerful labor unions looking out for you. It’s designed to be a stable long term job that you can build a life on.
These kinds of offers are now typical in many cities around the country.
So here’s the deal on driving a bus. (Note: Light rail train drivers usually start as bus drivers.)
- You have to enjoy driving safely.
- You have to deal with people. Some are wonderful and help you feel better about humanity. Most are harmless headphone-wrapped units of social isolation. Some are unpleasant. A few could be dangerous.
- You have to have an exercise routine to compensate for the sedentary nature of the job.
But all that’s true of Uber too!
This job is not for everyone, but anyone looking for a job in this wage/skill range should be considering it. Do you know one of these people? Do you meet groups of people who might fall in this category? Point them to your public transit authority’s website, where there’s probably a very prominent “we’re hiring!” box.
Because if nobody will do this job, we won’t have public transit anymore.
Do you have any data on whether this is a global issue, or specific to the US?
Seems to be worse in the US than in other countries I work in.
This is an issue in Australia too, where it seems that most operators are about 10% short of drivers, leading to cancelled trips and drivers getting burnt out on overtime. It’s a stable job but many drivers have issues with split shifts – something that was seen as unavoidable in the past but is being re-examined due to the unrelenting driver shortage. Post-covid recovery has seen an increase in midday travel, leading some to consider reducing peak and bolstering infra-peak services, which would benefit customers that don’t fit the traditional “commuter” profile but also allow for less split shifts.
I like your way of advertising jobs:
– Here’s the pay
– You have job security (unions)
– This is what you will be doing – driving
– Including unpleasant experiences that come with driving a bus
– Please exercise because you’ll be sitting all day
– But that’s the job. Driving a bus. And everything that comes with it. No more, no less.
It’s not a recruiting problem. It’s a retention problem. We have to address the working conditions and stop people from leaving. Most bus operators quit in the first few years, and many don’t last six months. Ask any bus operator why it’s such a hard job and they’ll tell you about the complete lack of support, problem passengers that never get removed, management treating you like a child, and the union leadership saying “I suffered, now you suffer too.” Management and union leaders just needs to listen to bus operators but unfortunately they refuse to change. I am working on an article discussing these issues at length and just need to find time to get it published. Feel free to reach out if you would like some advice.
I think you’ve actually described a diverse set of barriers that have different causes. You can’t blame it all on “management”.
In progressive cities, removing problem passengers triggers a lot of backlash from some progressive critics of law enforcement. Any enforcement action will produce phone footage that’s easily edited to emphasize the law enforcement officer’s action while omitting the customer behavior that triggered it. It also gets caught up in the whole debate about the “criminalization of homelessness,” which is an agonizing issue with no good solutions at the local level.
I’m always shocked at the lack of restroom facilities at the ends of lines, but this is due mostly to the hostility toward buses that many businesses show. It’s hard enough to find a place to park a bus, let alone meet the needs of a driver.
And as you mention, the unions can themselves be a source of somme of the challenges.
“I’m always shocked at the lack of restroom facilities at the ends of lines, but this is due mostly to the hostility toward buses that many businesses show. It’s hard enough to find a place to park a bus, let alone meet the needs of a driver.“
It’d be good to do or link to a full post unpacking that because it’s clear there’s a lot more behind quite a short statement.
In a “capitalist” society when you can’t get something you increase the amount of money offered until you can fill the need. HOWEVER, what we have seen with the glorious Amerikkan Public transportation Industrial complex is the exact same thing we have seen with corporate amerikka. Degradation of workers pay/benefits while the executive compensations go straight up. Insofar as TriMet specifically is concerned you couldn’t get a job there in the past. And why was that you ask? Well it had SPECTACULAR pay and SPECTACULAR benefits, such as european style health care and a DEFINED pension. Guess what? The executive class stole all that away while giving themselves a bonus and look where we are now. Sure the benefits are better than Uber but that’s about it.
How many people drive Uber as a side gig versus as a full-time position? That’s the only caveat I can see against your proposal, that it won’t resonate with Uber drivers who already have a 9-to-5 and just moonlight for additional income.
Note Uber drivers can drive when they want, how long they want, and where they want. New bus drivers have to work 12 hour spreads or late night shifts on weekends and holidays in some cases far from where they live. You can take a restroom break at home for however long you need instead of an 8 minute break at the end of the line where the restroom is an 8 minute walk from the bus layover location. I know LA Metro has mandatory overtime, so forget your plans on your day off. It is not clear if transit is better than Uber, especially for people who can get benefits from their spouse.
These are all real problems with bus driving that will need to be solved before the numbers will increase. It is more complicated than merely giving bus drivers more money.
I have found our main challenge recruiting bus drivers is simply the second shift schedule. Most potential applicants I talk to are fine with our pay, but they want Monday – Friday 1st shift work. Low seniority drivers almost all work one weekend day and 2nd shift, though it is all straight shift work here with no mandatory overtime. Still, people can find work (driving and otherwise) during first shift, so they prioritize that quality of life and just walk away. Since transit has to run past 2pm to be useful, and I’d just lose higher seniority drivers by making them work second shift, I have no solutions.
We currently have over 25% of our fixed route runs canceled for lack of drivers, while ridership has been growing.
That’s an interesting point. If bus drivers get to determine bus schedules, every route would run only from 8 AM-5PM Monday-Friday, with no service during an hour-long midday lunch break. Such a schedule would be terrible for passengers, but great for bus drivers.
Many small town/rural transit agencies actually do have schedules like this because they have very little money or manpower, and it’s the only way to find bus drivers. Big cities, however, are usually able to do better.
Theory would suggest 1st and 2nd shift are two different jobs, and you’re paying first shift drivers too much and second shift drivers too little. Could express this as lower base pay higher ‘overtime’ applied outside core 0830-1700 hours. Realistically pay cannot be cut but inflation can erode value over time whilst increases focused on overtime element. Or perhaps in this circumstance your city would prefer to cut suddenly expensive-looking evening services?
Or maybe the theoretical view is niave?
A pay differential is the most commonly proposed solution–and probably a good one–but there are some strong opinions against that in my local context that have prevented it to date. It would essentially be giving
a significant pay raise to lower seniority workers and not higher seniority workers, which doesn’t go over well with existing higher seniority drivers.
There is also some question over just how much is needed to overcome the difference. In talking to people I haven’t found the number that would convince them. We have experimented with pay differential for some unpopular schedules in the past and it never made a difference. I think the dollar amount would likely need to be beyond what we can currently afford.
If people could pick their start time, I think a 6/6:30am start time would be the most popular. Early enough to get out early afternoon, but not that painful-early of some of our current shifts. Our current service span is 5:00 am – 10:15 pm. We’re small town / small city regional (four cities in our area). Not rural, but not large urban.
Looking back on it, I think my first post was a bit unhelpful, so thanks for a great response.
There must be people working in shops, restaurants and so on who are effectively working second shift, presumably for lower wages than you’re offering? Any sense of why they aren’t applying?
I find it very useful to speak to drivers like Uber, Doordash, UPS, FedEx and more and ask what they like about that kind of work and their employers. This is purposely done far away from the choreographed setting of job interviews.
I then asked if they considered applying for jobs as bus drivers, especially given the industry shortage. I speak to them as an everyday person who simply wants to get by vs. someone involved with the transit industry. It’s amazing the honest stereotypes they report about their image of drivers, passengers, buses, routes and neighborhoods.
Most of all, they view public transit assignments as being extremely inflexible in contrast to what they landed.
As happens with many forms of impressions, perception is reality. So the public transit industry will benefit tremendously from image makeovers. It can be done through skillfully designed, timed and placed campaigns in various forms of marketing, from traditional to social media.
It can also be done through word of mouth, to purposely, adroitly and with respect interject positive portrayals of transit in conversations with special attention to the drivers who provide it.
One of the issues I’ve heard raised, but haven’t necessarily seen data on, is the issue of drug testing, particularly for cannabis. In states where cannabis is legal, either recreationally or medically, you can still use and drive for Uber or Lyft, but you would fail FTA-required drug testing for transit operators, particularly since drug tests may be positive for cannabis use from anywhere between 3-30 days after use. Until cannabis is legal federally, this may continue to be an issue in recruiting transit operators.
I’ve long wondered if part-time work could entice more Uber/Lyft drivers to try operating a bus. Some agencies have strict limitations on—or outright prohibitions against—part-time operators. I suspect that is to prevent agencies from covering full-time work with part-time shifts that offer no benefits. So could agencies offer benefits to part-time workers? I wonder what agencies with part-time workers think. Do part-time shifts make it easier to recruit, but harder to retain?