COVID-19 Recovery: Riders are Coming Back but Where are the Drivers?

March 22, 2022
While the world is learning to live with COVID-19, agencies are struggling to meet new service demands due to an industry-wide labor shortage. 

As restrictions begin to lift and the world shifts its attitude to “living with COVID-19,” agencies are reporting upticks in ridership, such as the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Metropolitan Council and the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. 

While the increasing ridership trend is welcome news, there has been an equal if not greater number of announcements from agencies saying they are limiting services due to a driver shortage. To highlight this phenomenon, the Shared-Use Mobility Center (SUMC) released a report in November 2021, “Managing the Labor Shortage at Transit Agencies,” that documents the drastic drop in transit industry employees, saying from “March to April of 2020, employment in the transit and ground passenger transportation industry fell from about 498,000 to 321,000 employees.” 

While the drop is significant, this labor shortage has been years in the making; it was just exacerbated by the pandemic, explains a report released February 2022 by the Alliance for a Just Society, the Labor Network for Sustainability and TransitCenter. 

Take Steamboat Springs Transit (SST) in Steamboat Springs, Colo., for instance—a ski resort area with a heavy reliance on seasonal drivers. Jonathan Flint, transit manager for SST, explains filling the seasonal driver roster has always been a challenge, but was making progress by working with areas that have an opposite seasonal demand. 

“We had made that successful up until COVID-19 hit, [then] we started losing some of our drivers,” Flint shared.  

But agencies’ successful recovery from the pandemic rides on their ability to retain and recruit staff to meet the growing demand. This year marks a pivotal point for the industry in how it chooses to better invest in the workforce and job equity to attract and retain quality talent.  

Understanding the Labor Shortage 

Flint explains the initial concerns about personal health and all the unknowns of COVID-19 back in March 2020 contributed to the loss of drivers, and while SST reports only three drivers contracting the virus, this has affected the agency’s current ability to retain and recruit new drivers—both full time and seasonal.  

“A lot of them began to leave the market, either through retirement or resignation. It’s been an ongoing issue,” Flint said.  

This trend is not unique to SST. According to the report from SUMC, as of 2020, the proportion of transit staff aged 55 and over was 42.2 percent, "compared with only 25.2 percent of employees across the entire transportation industry and 23.9 percent of employees across the entire US workforce." Nate Seeskin, a program associate at SUMC, adds the work environment, compounded by the higher median age, could also be a contributing factor.  

“[I think the] really tough working conditions in the pandemic has accelerated a lot of people's decisions to leave their jobs,” Seeskin shared.  

Coupled with these challenges, when Omicron hit SST, a new issue emerged. About a third of SST’s staff were out sick, impacting its ability to maintain full service.  

“One [issue] was we didn't have the initial bodies to put out the full service that we had scheduled. Then, the other thing is for the drivers who were not sick, we didn't want to overuse them and make them vulnerable to becoming sick because they were just worn out,” Flint said.  

As this past winter season approached, SST knew it wasn’t going to reach pre-pandemic staffing levels, so it built a schedule to be nearly 25 percent short of its typical full service. This way, SST offered a consistent schedule to better serve the public. And as the world continues to move forward, Flint is hopeful SST will reach pre-pandemic full staffing levels.  

Attracting and Retaining 

However, that hope of returning to pre-pandemic staffing levels won't come without its own set of challenges. Attracting and retaining employees is going to require strategic investments and new approaches. Libero Della Piana, senior strategist at the Alliance for a Just Society, explains this could include adding people to the potential labor pool.  

“There are a lot of inequitable barriers to jobs like minor past offenses, like marijuana possession or things like that, which block many young men and women of color from these jobs unnecessarily,” Della Piana said.  

Della Piana and Seeskin also agree investing in pay increases can make the transit industry more competitive. Seeskin notes agencies can conduct peer research into how its wages compare to similar agencies and across industries by accessing data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Agencies can also improve working conditions to create a safer and more pleasant environment. This is something many are doing by providing PPE, adding routine cleaning regiments and socially distancing operators from passengers.  

With this in mind, Flint shares SST’s primary focus is on retention.  

“The most valuable thing that we can have is a driver who already works here, does a good job, shows up [and] is a safe driver, good with customers; that driver is gold,” Flint said.  

To help with retention, SST offers cash bonuses to returning drivers and full-time drivers at the start of the busy season. But SST takes another unique approach: it offers housing. Currently, SST signs on to lease apartments in the summer to offer them at a highly subsidized rate to its seasonal drivers in the winter since housing is expensive and limited. But relying on the market can’t be guaranteed each year. Knowing this, SST is looking to build and maintain its own housing.  

“If we don't have housing, we don't have a transit system. It is a business expense that we've just had to absorb,” Flint explained. “[Adding housing] will at least allow us to get drivers in the door.” 

Finding and Creating Quality 

To get those drivers in the door, Flint shares one thing that has worked well for them is asking how the applicant heard about SST and why they applied.  

“What that's done is enabled us to focus in on the areas that are working really well,” Flint said. “Even though, maybe it's more expensive to place advertisement here or do that in-person recruiting, the results of that have been very good.” 

One area that has been working for SST is recruiting drivers from the oil and gas industry.  

“When we broadened out to other people with a CDL, but maybe weren't in the transit industry, but had a lot of the same attributes that we look for, it was actually a pretty good fit,” Flint said.  

Seeskin agrees this is a good approach to finding more talent, adding that agencies could consider other areas such as school bus drivers and private coach operators, as well as the construction industry. But targeting specific areas and industries isn’t the only way to find quality talent. Another way agencies can invest in their workforce is to establish pipelines to transit jobs at an early age. This can help with people's perception and show that there is more to the industry than most think.  

“Overall, it is imperative to start outreach early and illustrate transit’s opportunities, community-based role and the nature of the work, as they align with young people’s values,” said Jack Clark, executive director, International Transportation Learning Center (ITLC). “But to do that, we also need to educate people who influence young peoples’ career choices, including parents, principals, guidance counselors and teachers, explaining the benefits and opportunities and, importantly, how young people can access these careers.” 

As young people or those new to the industry learn about public transit, Della Piana emphasizes the importance of explaining how the industry touches on climate justice, racial justice, equity and more.  

“I think part of it is communicating that public transit is the cutting edge of the future and not some legacy of the past,” Della Piana said. “And I think if people feel like the jobs are safe, stable and secure, and they're also part of the technological advancement and improvement and environmental climate response...I think that’s going to attract people.” 

As Della Piana explains, job stability is a key factor, especially to retain employees. One way to do this is to provide continuous education. For example, the Transit Workforce Center (TWC), which is operated by the International Transportation Learning Center (ITLC) on behalf of the Federal Transit Administration, is establishing the new American Transit Training and Apprenticeship Innovators Network (ATTAIN). ATTAIN connects agencies and labor unions to new or existing apprenticeship programs for frontline workers.  

“Through ATTAIN, the TWC promotes apprenticeship, advances frontline worker training, facilitates peer exchange and provides technical assistance to agencies and unions interested in developing apprenticeship programs for their frontline workforce,” said Clark. 

Adding language for workforce training in zero-emission bus Request for Proposals and utilizing TWC’s technical assistance desk and other online training materials are other ways to provide training. ITLC Program Director John Schiavone points out the rapid transition to low and zero-emission vehicles requires immediate higher-level training, citing an Amalgamated Transit Union report that confirmed there is a perception of uncertainty about technicians’ current ability to perform electrical/electronic maintenance and repair. 

“We need an industry-wide mobilization to take the many separate training efforts and coordinate them in such a way to more effectively upgrade digital and other critical skills in agencies across the country,” Schiavone said. “There is a lot of room for improvement and proactive training and strong workforce development programs with innovative tools like virtual learning are components of a comprehensive solution.” 

Providing proper training and education can help with the other two significant factors in maintaining a quality workforce: creating a sense of purpose and belonging for employees.  

"It is absolutely essential that our employees have a purpose. You move a lot of people; you cut down on congestion; you do a lot to help out the community,” Flint said of SST’s operators. “Even though technology has made dramatic improvements, we still need that human interaction. We need that driver.  

“I need supervisors. I need dispatchers. I need mechanics. I still need that human element. While I think sometimes the industry is really focused in on technology, I think we've got to continue to really focus in on the driver, the staff member,” concluded Flint.  

About the Author

Megan Perrero | Associate Editor

Megan Perrero is an award-winning B2B journalist. She is the associate editor of Mass Transit magazine where she assists with developing the newsletters and social media posts, along with the online and print content. She is currently a board member for Latinos in Transit and serves on the APTA Marketing and Communications Committee. She’s based out of Chicago, Ill.

Prior to joining the team, Perrero gained experience covering the manufacturing and processing food and beverage industry, the agriculture industry and the library industry.

Perrero is a Columbia College Chicago alumna where she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism with a concentration in magazine writing and a minor in public relations.