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Recruiting and retaining the best: Transit workforce best practices

Transit agencies now have the federal funding needed to develop a world-class transit workforce, but pulling it off is another question. We’ve compiled strategies for success from agencies that have implemented real solutions to empower their operator and maintenance workforce.

Prospective applicants line up for a Sacramento transit hiring event
Sacramento residents line up for a job fair at their Regional Transit District (source: SacRT)

We wrote about the dwindling transit workforce last fall and earlier this spring, but here’s a quick summary.

When the pandemic started, transit operators were already strained by a stressful work environment and long, unpredictable hours. The pandemic presented new challenges, not the least of which was a lack of ridership that left transit agencies strapped for funds. As agencies tried to cope operators were let go, or they saw their wages/hours significantly reduced even as their jobs grew more difficult than ever. (Check out TransitCenter’s report on Bus Operators in Crisis to understand how difficult these jobs have become.)

Now, as ridership is rising, agencies are finding themselves without the necessary staff to meet demand. We’ve made some suggestions before about how to fill this crucial need and keep it filled—in short, transit agencies need to properly invest in their workforce and provide them with the support they require, even through periodic tough times. But right now, as federal funding helps to fill agencies’ wallets, how can they recruit transit staff?

We spoke with transit agencies that are trying to understand their staff and use innovative recruitment strategies to address their workforce needs. Here’s what we heard.

Understanding the employees’ experience

To better understand their employee retention hurdles, Bay Transit of Middle Peninsula Virginia decided to deploy an employee survey. They evaluated employee perceptions of workplace attributes (such as benefits, competitive wages, and less concrete ideas like agency trustworthiness) and identified gaps between employee expectations and Bay Transit’s actual performance. This information helped them determine what their employees needed from them and how they could be a more competitive workplace.

Further down the Chesapeake Coast in Hampton Roads, Virginia, Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) took a more direct approach to employee engagement, this time with a focus on its management team. Like most transit agencies, operators were welcome to attend and speak with the agency’s management team. But many HRT operators did not have the time or means to schedule and/or attend these meetings, and often had no idea how to engage their management at all. So the management team decided to visit the system’s bus depots and in-service vehicles to speak with operators about the issues they were dealing with on the job. This experience allowed them to become better advocates for their employees when speaking with the agency’s governance board and provide their workforce with the support it needs.

More support for current workers

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Missoula Urban Transportation District, or Mountain Line, in Missoula, Montana was in a labor free fall. They were understaffed, with remaining employees facing high burnout and low morale, while voters had approved a transit expansion that was going to require a 30 percent workforce increase. Voters acknowledged that an expansion required increased funding for transit but were unsure of the most impactful ways to spend the funds. In 2021, Mountain Line was only able to retain 50 percent of its new hires. They were going the wrong direction.

In the fall of 2021, Mountain Line developed a new strategy. First, its board decided to use part of the new funding approved by votes to increase wages 15 percent across the board, a massive jump in pay that allowed them to compete with other employers in Missoula. This also made their employees feel more valued. Mountain Line found this strategy to be the most effective for recruitment. They also invested in improving the internal culture for their workforce by initiating a Diversity and Inclusion Committee and improving internal communications. (Read more about Missoula’s efforts to turn the corner on employee retention on page 16 of the Passenger Transport magazine.)

Overcoming barriers to recruitment

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

There are many reasons people do not apply to be transit operators. As a transit rider, the job can appear difficult and thankless. Des Moines Area Regional Transit (DART) tried to do something about that by allowing people to test drive buses to see whether they were comfortable behind the wheel. They invited people to the Iowa State Fairgrounds to test drive a 40-foot long bus through an obstacle course. At this event they also advertised a $3,000 sign-on incentive to new drivers with a Commercial Drivers License (CDL) and a $2,000 sign-on incentive to new drivers without a CDL. 

The IndyGo transit system in Indianapolis realized they were losing out on applicants with non-violent criminal records. Many of these applicants were well-prepared to be transit operators or mechanics, but they were blocked from working for IndyGo by a rule that had no bearing on their ability to do the job. So IndyGo created the Second Chance hiring initiative to help level the playing field for applicants who may be highly qualified but have had a criminal conviction.  

Back in Hampton Roads, HRT has tried to boost their dwindling recruitment numbers by forming a partnership with Tidewater Community College to create the Drive Now program. Drive Now provides free training to prospective transit operators that includes a CDL, a Virginia Career Readiness Certificate, and customer service and workplace skills. These skills and certifications can be expensive to acquire on one’s own, so Drive Now helps pave the way for new applicants to find jobs in transit.

Finding hires in unexpected places

When the Alexandria Transit Company (DASH) found themselves with a shortage of trained technicians to service their buses, they looked beyond their recruitment practices to where those practices were being implemented. They were mostly targeting experienced diesel technicians from heavy vehicle industries with similar skills that are needed for bus maintenance. DASH soon realized, however, that this applicant pool was too narrow to meet their capacity needs, so they widened their search to include technicians from outside fields (mostly automotive) with comparable skills and similar foundations. This brought in talent that may not have discovered careers in transit and reduced the barrier to entry. When veteran operators trained new hires to become diesel mechanics, they discovered that they also deepened their own knowledge and skill.

To address its recruitment issues, the Sacramento Regional Transit District (SacRT) turned to its riders. They advertised free rides for anyone that attended hiring events. These riders were familiar with the system, and many were comfortable being trained to operate its buses.

Developing a workforce for the future of transit

Perhaps the newest frontier of transit workforce development is in operating low and zero-emission vehicles. On Tuesday, August 16, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced the first round of 150 grants awarded under the Low- and No-Emission (Low-No) and Bus and Bus Facilities programs. The Low-No program requires grantees to 1) create Zero-Emission Fleet Transition Plans and 2) spend 5 percent of award money on workforce development training, including apprenticeships and other labor-management training programs as recipients make the transition to low or no emission vehicles. 

This workforce development requirement yielded some innovative recruitment and training ideas. One example is Omnitrans in San Bernardino County, California, which will spend part of its $9.3 million award to launch its comprehensive workforce development program (under its strategic plan) to increase compensation, improve professional development, provide stability, and improve the internal culture. Another example is MARTA in Atlanta, which will use part of its $19.3 million award to support its 2-year apprenticeship program and collaborations with local technical colleges.

So what?

Though local actors are producing innovative solutions, national problems persist. Transit operators face rising rates of assault from riders. Operators are still recovering from the increased stress of the worst part of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many transit labor forces, even in massive systems like Amtrak, remain overworked and understaffed

The money to fix these issues is available. The new infrastructure law provided numerous funding streams for workforce development, including the Low-No Program. Also, the U.S. Department of Transportation will now cover 100 percent of the cost of workforce development programs if they are paid for out of the ample-funded highway formula programs. 

The time to take decisive action is now. The communities that succeeded often did so because of proactive engagement and collaboration between local advocates and their public officials to explore and implement innovative solutions. It will be up to local administrative and political will to implement the proven strategies laid out in this article.

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