Manager's Forum

Nashville, Tenn.
Timothy Sanderson
Director of Administration
Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA)

Recruiting highly qualified candidates as bus operators has presented a challenge to the Nashville MTA. Through innovative practices and a commitment to continuous improvement, we have recently developed a system that has met our goal of having a safe, customer-focused and responsible contingent of operators.

This new approach started a little more than five years ago, when the management team realized it was much easier to train individuals with strong customer service skills to drive our vehicles safely, than it was to provide those with driving experience with the necessary customer service skills. As such, we modified our job advertisements and launched an operator recruitment campaign emphasizing the customer service aspects of the position rather than the driving skills. In addition, newspaper ads were placed in the customer service area of the classifieds, rather than the “drivers wanted” section.

To better position MTA for this change, a new organizational structure was created to focus recruitment and development into one area. MTA had historically assigned the job of recruiting to individual departments, with support from Human Resources (HR). This structure was altered to reverse the roles, making HR responsible for the process and other departments providing support. This change also centralized the training function with HR, effectively creating a “one-stop shop” for providing fully trained and qualified operators. Having the training department intimately involved in the recruitment process allowed for better screening that resulted in gaining excellent operators.

The outcome of our efforts was almost immediate, and we began receiving dozens of applications every week. This created a new challenge — the need to quickly conduct interviews and process the applicants before they found employment elsewhere. This issue was exacerbated due to the fact that if the candidate failed the written permit test for a CDL, they were required to wait at least a week before they could retake it in accordance with Tennessee State law.

Instead of following a traditional interview scheduling process, which can be a slow process, we started “speed interviews.” This process, similar to speed dating (although not as much fun, I’m sure) consisted of having a staff member do a quick preliminary desk review of the application to ensure that the candidate met the minimum requirements of the job. If they did, they (along with about 50 others) would be asked to come in for an interview during a three- to four-hour period. Other managers and supervisors were asked to help out for a day on the interviews to expedite the process. Structured questions for the managers to ask were prepared to ensure consistency.

When the applicants arrived for the interviews, they were met by two managers who conducted the interview. At the end of the interview, if the candidate was successful, one of the interviewers would inform the applicant that “stage one” of our pre-employment process was successfully completed.

“Stage two” involves successfully completing the subsequent steps (reference check, background check, CDL permit, drug and alcohol screen, and physical). The applicant then completes the necessary paperwork. We request each applicant to successfully complete the CDL permit exam within the following two weeks. Failure to complete, or attempt to take the CDL permit exam, would remove the applicant from the hiring process.

The results of this new system were astounding. In a one-year period, almost 100 new operators were hired. New training classes began every two weeks and Nashville MTA became fully staffed for vehicle operators for the first time in several years. The desired result of decreased overtime cost was realized and the workload of the dispatch office was reduced.

This new emphasis on customer service has also been noticed by our passengers. As MTA expanded service and more operators were hired, MTA’s Customer Care staff had a significant reduction in the number of complaints related to passenger relations.

Not only did this change improve the experience of those who were using MTA’s services previously, but it also helped in retaining new riders who tried the service for the first time. Since 2002, MTA has experienced a 50 percent increase in ridership, with only a small increase in service hours. While a number of internal and external factors have come into play to create this increase, the professionalism and courtesy of our drivers has been a big part of ensuring that our passengers remain customers of MTA.

Finally, it should be noted that the changes we made to our recruiting program were done with the realization that hiring operators without driving experience would require a great deal of additional work for both the HR and training departments. Fortunately, the both staffs recognized and embraced the “big picture” of how excellent recruiting enables an organization to continuously exceed expectations and provide the highest possible level of service to our customers.

Despite economic changes that have affected the country as a whole, the United States has experienced five years of economic growth and relatively low unemployment rates. The great city of El Paso, Texas, is no different and has seen significant job growth with the expansion of Fort Bliss through the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC).

El Paso, Texas
Lloyd Williams, MBA
Assistant Director of Operations
Sun Metro

El Paso is facing a tighter labor market especially in the transportation sector. Sun Metro, El Paso’s public transit system, faces increasing competition from a number of employers that include a number of school districts, government transportation contractors, trucking companies and over-the-road bus lines. As transit managers, we are concerned about attracting and retaining quality applicants, about the ability of new hires to successfully complete our intensive training program and about how the potential operator will provide great customer service to the citizens of this great city.

At Sun Metro we are always looking for innovative, better and streamlined ways to become a choice employer. Being a city of El Paso department, Sun Metro employees fall under civil service protocol. It is management’s view that we should use this as a recruiting tool. Working for city government brings a sense of stability that the private industry cannot compete with. Layoffs are almost nonexistent in El Paso’s municipal government, and even if there are cuts, city management does everything possible to place that employee in some other comparable city department. This job security is critical in today’s workforce and has proved very valuable in going after quality operators. Working conditions for bus operators are undeniably challenging, but there may be other aspects of the job that Sun Metro can, like great pay, city government benefits, job security, working with people, opportunities for advancement, organizational excellence, ability to work independently and the opportunity to impact the daily lives of thousands of citizens that rely on our services.

Sun Metro is currently using the Internet to enhance its recruiting efforts. Our Web page receives a large number of visitors wanting information on specific route information and this could turn out to be a potential operator in the making. One great thing about our Web site is that it presents a logical sequence of information that is designed to provide potential prospects a broad scope of information about working for Sun Metro.

As important as it is to hire quality operators, it is equally as important to retain quality employees. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates it costs approximately $3,000 to $7,000 to replace an employee. Costs are also sustained through lower productivity from the time our operator decides to leave Sun Metro until we hire, train and bring to speed his or her replacement. It is my belief that retention is achieved though equity and fairness, autonomy, having employees be part of the process in what we are trying to achieve and opportunities for advancement for employees who want to better themselves and their family’s well-being.

One very important factor is the degree to which employees perceive that they are appreciated within the organization. There are countless things management can do to achieve this such as bus roadeo participation, employee awards, safety awards, employee incentive programs and employee/management mixers.

In conclusion, we at Sun Metro operate on the mindset that we want to be an employer of choice. We do not want everybody out there on the street, but we do want the best out there. The city of El Paso’s city council, our city manager and the management team here at Sun Metro feel a deep commitment to providing this city a reliable, clean, state-of-the-art, innovative system they can be proud of.

Grande Prairie, Alberta
Robert Carroll, P. Eng.
Transportation Services Manager
City of Grande Prairie Transit

The city of Grande Prairie contracts from the private sector for its supply of transit operators, our present contractor being Cardinal Coachlines. This system has been working quite well and we plan to continue with this arrangement when the present contract expires in 2009.

This removes the need for the city to actively recruit and train operators, since our transit system is relatively small with five routes. Our city is quickly growing and we will be adding to our present five-route system in the next three years and at some point it may be cost effective to hire and train from within, but we are satisfied that our present arrangement works best.

At certain times, in our oil-based economy, our contractor has considerable competition from other areas for operators and has to actively recruit through media advertising and promotion but it has never gotten to the point of not being able to supply the needed amount of operators to fulfill its contracted commitment.

Manager’s Forum goes to the front lines of the transit industry to get feedback on different topics relevant to passenger transportation — and we want to hear from you! If you have an idea for discussion or would like to voice your opinion, please contact Leah Harnack at (262) 446-2816 or via email at

More Related Information:
Archived Article: Driving Risk Out of Your Transit Fleet
Archived Article: Manager’s Forum — Training Operators
Mass Transit Buyer’s Guide: Recruiters