Located in Fayetteville, Ark., Razorback Transit, a department of the University of Arkansas, which provides public transit bus and paratransit services for the university and the City of Fayetteville, has taken a unique approach to combat staffing issues it is experiencing, specifically with maintenance technicians.
“Northwest Arkansas is very competitive. We have the world headquarters for J.B. Hunt, Walmart, and Tyson Foods, so there’s a lot of trucking in the area, or as they call it in the industry, a lot of wheel positions, which takes our potential maintenance technicians out of the system,” explains David Dunn, superintendent of maintenance for Razorback Transit.
To combat the issue, Razorback began looking at new ways to recruit and make potential employees more aware of public transit.
“When I came into my role here about six years ago, I challenged all of our department leads to find ways to recruit staff, because we had really been going through a long period where we had maintenance technician positions open that nobody would apply for,” says Adam Waddell, GM for Razorback Transit. “I stated at the time that we were no longer going to settle for mediocre and that we needed to get out and hire the best people for the job. David took the ball and ran with it by developing a program that has resulted in a really great partnership for us and the other transit provider in the area, Ozark Regional Transit.”
Dunn reached out to the Northwest Technical Institute (NWTI) to create a program where maintenance technician students from the school were able to come down after their school day and work in Razorback Transit’s maintenance shop to both gain knowledge and fill the system’s staffing issues.
“It’s like an intern-type position for them that we run pretty regularly,” explains Dunn. “In fact, three of the five maintenance technicians we have on staff have come from NWTI. There is also one technician that is in school and set to graduate in May. If we have a position open for him at that time, we intend to bring him on as well.”
“The program has given us the chance to recruit, fill the open positions we have, and help the community by the fact that they are getting practical training out in the workplace,” adds Waddell.
To expand its base of students, NWTI has also began extending its reach out to local high schoolers, by enabling them to come to the school and shadow NWTI students to see if the field is a potential fit for their future career path.
“The Chamber of Commerce in Springdale, where NWTI is located, is driving the program, which is really working well,” explains Dunn. “They have taken the traditional model for recruiting athletes and flipped it to recruit students to NWTI.”
To further extend its partnership and allow students to train on buses sooner, Dunn says that Razorback Transit recently donated one of its late-model Gillig buses to NWTI.
“Prior to this year, their program was only able to train technicians on medium- and heavy-duty trucks, so our donation allows their students to get their hands on a bus much sooner than they had before,” he says.
Waddell hopes the donation and the continuing evolution of the program will continue to bear fruit for the university, as the need for qualified, skilled maintenance technicians becomes even more vital.
“The technology that is involved with fixing buses, trucks, and really vehicles for that matter, takes more than your shade-tree mechanic. Nowadays, vehicle maintenance is a highly technical field,” he says.
Waddell adds that to be even more appealing, Razorback Transit adjusted its benefits and compensation package to be more competitive with the other companies that have open wheel positions. He also says it is able to offer other amenities to potential employees, including a more relaxed work environment and the benefits of working on a school schedule.
Hiring bus operators
The program with NWTI has led Razorback Transit to begin creating a similar program to fill another staffing issue they are experiencing — recruiting and hiring bus operators.
“There is a lot of competition in Northwest Arkansas for driver positions both from the trucking industry and the local public school districts,” says Waddell. “We are desperately struggling to have new talent come in that want to make being a bus operator a career.”
He adds that apart from competition, the changing workforce has also been an issue in attracting new drivers.
“One issue we’ve heard a lot is that the younger generation is driving less and less and they may not even have a car when they enter the workforce, so they may be intimidated by the thought of driving something as big as a bus,” Waddell says. “The unemployment rate is also a challenge in and of itself — the unemployment rate in Northwest Arkansas is 2.4%, which is well below the rest of the state at 3.7% — because all of the industries in the area are essentially competing for the same relatively small pool of people.”
He adds that the university has had preliminary discussions with NWTI about developing a program similar to its maintenance technician program.
“We started discussions a while ago and have taken things in step as time goes by,” says Waddell. “The maintenance program has really worked well for us, and we intend to venture further down that road to possibly developing a program for finding and developing potential bus operators.”
He says the long-term plan would include a program to enhance and develop a CDL driver program, with a focus on buses and public transportation.
“It wouldn’t only benefit Razorback Transit,” Waddell explains. “It’s really a skillset of need here in Northwest Arkansas, so it could really benefit the whole region as long as the program was developed properly.”
In the meantime, Razorback Transit has had some success with student employees.
“We have both full-time and part-time bus operators on staff here,” Waddell says. “We like to brag that it’s the best part-time job on campus, as well as the highest paid as far as I know. In fact, that’s how I started here; I drove buses while I was attending school.”
Aside from bus operator and maintenance technician staffing issues, Waddell says the agency’s biggest issue is funding, since it is a fare-free system. A majority of Razorback’s funding comes from a fee paid by the students to the university, with state, local, and federal funds making up the difference.
Waddell says the lack of funding means that both Razorback Transit and Ozark Regional Transit have had to learn to be better partners so that they don’t duplicate services.
“Dedicated funding to fully implement good transit in this area is probably where the largest issue comes into play, because other than that, you just try to balance it out and get the most bang for your buck with the resources that you have,” he says. “If there were more resources and funding streams available, though, we’d be able to improve our labor issues, as far as recruitment and staffing, but also we would be able to enhance the services that we already provide in Northwest Arkansas.”