The transit workforce shortage has been talked about even before the COVID-19 pandemic made its mark on the industry. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) made the spotlight brighter with its latest report.
In October 2022, APTA released its new report, "Transit Workforce Shortage: Root Causes, Potential Solutions, and the Road Ahead.” The report outlines the state of the transit workforce shortage and provides insight into what agencies and the industry can do to deal with this issue.
According to the report, 96% of agencies surveyed reported experiencing a workforce shortage, 84% of which said the shortage is affecting their ability to provide service.
Transit Center also directed its attention to bus operator issues with its report entitled “Bus Operators in Crisis,” detailing the challenges American operators are facing.
One cause of the struggles in recruiting and retaining new workers is the steady decline of the bus operator position, according to the Transit Center report.
Matt Dickens, APTA’s director, policy development and research, and Chris Van Eyken, project manager at Transit Center, dive deeper into the workforce issue and their respective reports.
A Deeper Dive
APTA took a closer look at the workforce shortage in transit “to better understand” its causes and “provide best practices for recruiting, hiring, and retaining transit operations workers.”
While the report offers solutions, Dickens expressed one surprising result despite one suggestion being implemented.
“Transit agencies are facing a worker shortage even though they offer competitive (and often better) compensation and benefits than other transportation jobs,” Dickens says. “This means there is an opportunity for transit agencies to improve processes and work culture to be more competitive.”
Approximately 50% of transit agencies have increased starting pay for operators and around 40% are paying hiring bonuses, according to Dickens.
Transit Center’s report acknowledges the industry faced this issue before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the group provides research to “inform and improve public transit and urban transportation.”
The report cites an increased rate of retirement and the challenge to recruit and retain new operators as reasons for the operator shortfalls. “Even in the absence of a pandemic, transit agencies would be challenged by a lack of workers,” the report states.
Van Eyken believes the severity of the issue changes depending on the location, but it remains a prominent issue in the industry.
“I think the level of desperation can vary from region to region and agency to agency,” Van Eyken said. “I think it just comes at a really inopportune time as we recover from the pandemic. A lot of agencies are trying to win back their riders; trust, but they don't have enough operators to run sufficient service, or even expand the service to places that are new growth centers. They're really going to lose out on the opportunity to convince riders that they should go back to their transit systems as they go back to their workplaces.”
Wheels in Motion
Speaking specifically to drivers, Transit Center’s report states the operator issue also comes from “the position’s lack of attractiveness.”
“Agencies are working to appeal to younger workers through improving workplace culture and creating pathways for workers to grow and advance in their careers,” Dickens says. “They are also providing incentives like tuition assistance and working with local education institutions to recruit a younger generation.”
Transit has always had an issue in recruiting new, younger talent because of how employees are prioritized.
“Historically, transit agency assignments have been determined by seniority,” Dickens says. “As a result, the newest employees must work undesirable shifts, sometimes for years. Some agencies have moved to systems that group or rotate shifts so that newer workers aren’t put in that position.”
Agencies have the opportunity to hire younger operators as the number of retirements has increased since the pandemic.
Van Eyken speaks to the imbalance of retirement numbers increasing, while the recruiting numbers have decreased, which plays a part in the operator issue.
“From speaking to operators and agencies, we do know that the number of retirements has gone up during the pandemic,” Van Eyken says. “We’ve always been in a moment where the transit workforce is older, on average, than the American worker. So, we’re going to see a larger number of retirements. The pandemic created a situation where instead of that being like a gradual crisis that built, it sort of hit harder all at once, where we have a larger number of older operators retiring.”
Disturbance in the Force
There are a plethora of factors that go into the overall workforce shortage.
APTA’s report states “concerns about schedule and compensation were responsible for more departures than assault and harassment or concern about contracting COVID-19.”
There’s no doubt to Dickens that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the issue. For example, the shift in working from home for some companies has painted the operator position as “less desirable.”
“The workforce issue did exist before the pandemic, but the pandemic has made things worse, for a few key reasons,” Dickens says. “One is the increase in e-commerce and package delivery due to the pandemic; package delivery jobs have increased and companies like Amazon are competing with transit agencies for the same drivers. The second is the general re-assessment of work that has happened as a result of the pandemic. Workers are re-evaluating when and how they want to work.”
Van Eyken also mentions how face-to-face positions have lost their luster.
“We know that recruitment numbers were down during the pandemic, and that's partly because folks became less willing to work with the public,” says Van Eyken.
Van Eyken adds that agencies instituted hiring freezes in response to financial worries.
According to the APTA report, 43% of transit workers are over 55, nearly double the percentage of the broader transportation sector. The aging of the transit workforce suggests agencies should plan for an increase in the rate of retirements over the next five to 10 years.
Retirements are a big reason for worker departures, but the APTA report shows nearly twice as many come in the first two years of employment regardless of agency size or service area population. Approximately 66% of agencies say they have seen an increase in departures during training.
So… How Do We Fix This?
APTA offers ways agencies can turn the broader worker shortage around.
The strategies include:
- Increasing compensation.
- Improving worker schedules.
- Creating a positive work environment.
- Demonstrating a clear path to promotions or raises.
- Ensuring worker safety.
- Providing ongoing training.
- Adopting more effective hiring practices.
- Adopting more effective recruiting practices.
APTA’s report goes into more detail on how to improve workplace culture to hire and retain operators, citing that the way to appeal to a new generation of transit workers is by agencies taking steps to make operator positions an attractive step into a career in transit. APTA believes in establishing “pathways for advancement and professional growth.”
Agencies can also improve the culture by creating employee recognition programs and improving amenities at agency facilities.
The report also says some of the factors driving the transit worker shortage are long-term and unlikely to reverse themselves in the near future. In response, agencies should invest in their hiring and recruiting capacities.
“In hiring, agencies can emphasize the very competitive benefits packages they offer, along with improving hiring effectiveness and improving their recruiting efforts through employee referrals, social media, and creating new pipelines for employees,” Dickens says.
Becoming a bus operator isn’t the first choice for someone in their 20s, according to Van Eyken.
“It's something people often come to after spending their 20s in other career choices that they found fulfilling or just weren't making enough money to pay the bills,” Van Eyken adds. “So I think a lot of agents are now reconsidering how they do the recruitment. It's not so much just posting to government websites or posting an ad on the side of your transit vehicle, but it’s about new word-of-mouth recruitment and family members. They're also increasingly approaching colleges, community colleges, and even high schools.”
One way Dickens believes can be a realistic way to address hiring issues is by speeding up the hiring process.
“Some agencies have worked hard to improve hiring fairs so they can give conditional offers on the day of the fair,” Dickens says. “Others have created programs to provide the training and classes necessary for new workers to get their commercial driver’s license. And others have created systems where new hires can do less sensitive work on a conditional basis while the agency performs background checks.”
Like APTA, the Transit Center report also mentions compensation among the solutions for the workforce shortage.
The report states that starting salaries must be competitive and new hires should be on the fast track to median wages to ensure they stay on.
TriMet raised its starting pay to $25.24 per hour, according to the report. New hires are eligible for a $7,500 signing bonus and can expect to reach the top rate of $33.65 in their 35th month on the job.
Houston METRO offers a $4,000 bonus upon hiring and, to attract bilingual operators, offers hourly pay increases for those who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, or American Sign Language, per the Transit Center report.
Improving operator safety is another key solution listed in the report.
Transit Center says “agencies must also take fare collection off the list of responsibilities for operators, as these interactions put operators in harm’s way and make them a target."
In the end, it all comes down to the agencies.
“Agencies need to work much harder to make sure that operators feel safe. This can be enclosed in the cockpit, so they're protected from riders that are showing aggression, they don't have to worry about somebody hitting them while they're driving,” Van Eyken says. “Agencies just need to do a lot of things to make the job better from a number of angles.”
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