What is behind the shortage of bus drivers?

The good news for Blacksburg Transit is that demand for bus service has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. The bad news is that it has 20% fewer drivers than it takes to reliably run its entire service program.

“We have gone from 4.6 million riders per year to last year with only 25% of our normal ridership,” said Lincoln Sklar, spokesperson for Blacksburg Transit. “This year, we are using fewer buses and fewer frequencies than two years ago to compensate for the lack of drivers, but we still see attendance comparable to that before the pandemic.”

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are being felt throughout the economy as the country’s remaining workers realize their bargaining power. However, public transport faces greater barriers than most other industries in recruiting and retaining new talent. A commercial driver’s license, an impeccable driving record and a propensity for public office are just some of the job requirements.

“We are facing a greater shortage of drivers than ever before,” Sklar said. “There is a surplus of jobs and a very limited pool of people to draw on. Our pool gets even smaller when you consider that when it comes to hiring someone as a bus driver we have very high standards. We require the ability to pass a background check, random drug tests and this is a qualified position. Our employees have a lot of responsibilities.

Cut through the Commonwealth

While the shortage of qualified bus operators is particularly severe in Blacksburg, it is not a problem unique to the New River Valley. Transit providers across the Commonwealth have cut service for months in an effort to cope. Down 59 drivers, Hampton Roads Transit was the first agency in Virginia to announce reduced service lack of staff in the spring. HRT’s lighter program only requires 327 operators instead of the typical 479, but the changes came at the cost of faster trips for riders just as the economy started to grow again.

“We hear about this concern from many of our agencies,” said Lisa Guthrie, Executive Director of the Virginia Transit Association which represents public transport providers. “In part, these are the lingering effects of the pandemic. People do not have daycare or their children do not return to school because of virtual learning. They may have family members to care for. Agencies have to end routes because they don’t have enough drivers and mechanics to keep buses on the road. This has a significant impact on employment and the economy.

In addition to the childcare and eldercare responsibilities that take some people out of the workforce, there are other more regular reasons behind the slow burning of driver attrition, including retirements from the workforce. routine, necessary layoffs due to infractions and defections to work-from-home roles. The Greater Richmond Transit Company is still in a strong position compared to other agencies in Virginia. However, its board of directors recently approved service cuts to the Pulse rapid transit line and eight other routes, citing a shortage of operators and mechanics that could only get worse before it gets better.

“We know by December that we will have six to twelve drivers retiring,” said Julie Timm, CEO of GRTC. “Then we have the vaccination mandate. Out of 450 employees – not counting our paratransit team – so far we have 70 percent who have voluntarily declared that they are vaccinated. I don’t know if this is a pool game and the resistance will give way when the deadline for getting vaccinated arrives or if I will lose a few dozen people at the end of the year.

The Pulse, Richmond’s new rapid transit line. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

Integration of new operators

The clearest way to end staff shortages is to attract new talent. Many transit providers use the federal government CARES Law funding to do just that, including GRTC, which currently offers new bus operators and mechanics hiring bonuses of $ 8,500 and $ 5,000, respectively. If the strategy works in the coming months, agencies may request that additional bonuses be allowed with American Rescue Plan Act money to bring staffing levels – and the much-needed transit service it provides – to their full capacity.

Beyond bonuses, the biggest issue may be base pay, benefits, and working conditions. The working relationship between transit executives and their teams, as in many industries in America, has long tended towards an unnecessary adversarial approach. Some of that changed during the height of the pandemic when management and workers came together to quickly provide personal protective equipment, change workplace protocols, and increase operator safety against the pandemic. Despite this positive progress, salary increases have not always followed.

“There’s no real shortage of bus operators,” said David Bragdon, executive director of the nonprofit. Transit center which campaigns nationally for better public transport. “There is just a shortage of labor at the wages that employers are willing to offer, so increasing wages must be part of the response to the perceived shortage. Nationally, we have yet to see a systemic change in transit labor relations, but the situation demands it.

Part of the reason GRTC may not have faced such a severe labor shortage as other suppliers may be the relatively rosy relationship between its union leaders and the agency CEO. , who frequently praises the union as “an asset”. While a new driver with GRTC receives $ 54,000 in base salary, 11 paid public holidays, 12 paid sick days, one to six weeks of paid vacation, and 85 percent of their paid health care, many other agencies in Virginia still only employ part-time workers in order to avoid the additional costs of these basic benefits.

“Our workforce is a mix of students who have other jobs driving for us part-time and retirees who just drive when college is in session,” Sklar said. “We are offering a starting salary of $ 13.56 per hour, so as other part-time positions have become much more competitive in terms of salary, the town of Blacksburg has started a compensation study to increase salaries. operators. We are also looking to launch hiring, retention and referral bonus programs.

The additional incentives appear to be needed, as the local school district recently introduced its own hiring bonuses and raised the wages of bus drivers to $ 20 an hour. Right next to Blacksburg, the town of Radford has also increased the wages of its transit drivers to $ 19 an hour. Such quick reactions from government officials are especially needed in a work environment in which workers with CDLs are increasingly in demand for trucking jobs in the private sector.

“Transit agencies are in an unenviable position, and the fact that a lot of them are public institutions certainly doesn’t help matters,” said Yonah Freemark, senior associate researcher at the Urban Institute, a think tank on social and economic policies. “The private sector is able to recruit people at salaries that can adapt to the market much faster than the public sector. Public transport providers have the onerous task of providing service within the confines of the public sector. This means that it often takes a little longer to increase income or access funding to increase wages.

Prioritize the pipeline

In the absence of any quick financing solution, transit providers have had to get creative to speed up the hiring of new bus operators. Individual agencies have conducted recruitment campaigns online and in the media. The VTA surveyed its members on best practices regarding recruitment strategies, staffing levels and reducing candidate disqualification. Despite all this innovation, the most difficult challenge for transit providers was that the Department of Motor Vehicles was not open to the public until several weeks ago.

“We have faced some major issues over the past year just to get people to take training,” Sklar said. “To come and work for us you first need to get your CDL license, but with DMV facing a staff shortage, this whole process has slowed down considerably. This meant that our timeline for training and hiring people had grown considerably. “

After months of negotiations with the DMV, the CEO of GRTC recently found a solution: “Before, if someone did not have their CDL, we had to refuse it because we could not test it and train it internally” , said Timm. “Now that we can administer the online courses for the candidates, it has helped us to have a new bumper crop of drivers. During COVID, we only had one or two new recruits in each incoming class, but now we’re back to the double-digit pre-pandemic level.

Several systems across Virginia are also working with community colleges to set up mechanical pipeline programs to deliver the exact training transit providers need, but such partnerships take time to build. . Some communities have even explored how to loan municipal mechanics to bus systems to act as pliers for repairs.

What all agencies can agree on is a strong desire to re-establish full bus service for their users. “I would love nothing more than to have a full transit system and immediately go back to the conversations we had before COVID about the expansion,” Timm said. “Any talk about reducing service is like nails on a board to me. It’s absolutely the last thing I want.

With Virginia Tech students returning to Blacksburg for in-person instruction, the desire for a return to normal has never been greater. “If we could put more buses in there, they would all be filled up immediately,” Sklar said. “We would like to increase our frequency. The more operators we can bring in here, the more buses we can get out on the road. We always tell people we hire.

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