New Report Highlights Strategies to Hire, Train, and Retain Bus Operators

New Report Highlights Strategies to Hire, Train, and Retain Bus Operators

The International Transportation Learning Center (ITLC) is pleased to announce the release of a pre-publication draft of the “Practitioner’s Guide to Bus Operator Workforce Management” published by the Transportation Research Board. This guide will help transit agencies better assess, plan, and implement their operator workforce management programs. The guide was written by the Eno Center for Transportation along with ITLC, and Huber and Associates, Inc.

ITLC staff gathered much of the input from industry stakeholders, public transit agencies, and labor unions that identified themes and forward-thinking approaches for the seven elements of operator workforce management addressed in the report: 

  • Workforce Needs Assessment
  • Recruitment
  • Compensation
  • Hiring Processes
  • Training
  • Safety, Health, and Working Conditions
  • Retention and Motivation

Throughout the process of focus group facilitation, conducting stakeholder interviews, developing and distributing an industry survey, and creating case studies, ITLC staff used their knowledge of the landscape of bus operator employment and the issues that agencies are commonly facing to ensure that this report addresses the most critical concerns and documents noteworthy strategies.

Key takeaways for the elements of operator workforce management included in the report are below.

Workforce Needs Assessment: When departments within a transit organization work together, they can better assess staffing needs with consideration for attrition, expected absences, turnover, and planned service changes. Quantitative information, such as turnover rates, workforce demographics, and service changes collected from human resources, service, and planning departments, can help better understand a transit agency’s workforce needs. Many transit agencies have indicated that this collection of data is minimal, nonexistent, or not shared strategically between departments. Likewise, some industry experts say that unions rarely get involved despite the potential benefits of incorporating unions early and often into workforce planning discussions.

Recruitment: While many new recruitment platforms, such as social media and digital advertising, have changed bus operator recruitment, traditional tools still attract potential candidates. Signage and advertisements in visible locations, such as billboards and buses, can be effective. Recruiting new employees using referrals from the existing employee base has long been a highly effective strategy. Providing sign-on bonuses directly to new employees also helps with recruitment. More recent strategies (such as videos) also make a difference in how agencies recruit operators. Since transit agencies’ websites are valuable recruitment tools, it is important that their home pages allow potential operators to easily find information about hiring events, employment opportunities, and employee benefits. Transit providers need to be aware that many job seekers do not understand a bus operator’s role and have negative preconceived notions about the position.

Compensation: Uncompetitive wages are often cited as one reason transit agencies have difficulty attracting new operators. That is why it is helpful for transit agencies to conduct regular wage comparisons with other similar industries and major employers in their geographic areas. Additionally, many transit agencies have reduced the time needed for bus operators to reach the highest pay grade. Transit agencies could better inform potential employees about the wide range of benefits they provide. Many other employers do not offer the same medical coverage, retirement programs, or paid time off.

Hiring Processes: Transit agency employees are aware that their hiring processes for bus operators need to be improved. Some transit agencies have been consolidating and speeding up their hiring processes. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many transit agencies to conduct interviews exclusively online, and some transit agencies plan to continue the practice. Candidate screening tools are used to narrow the pool of applicants and identify the best candidates. However, interviewees for this study revealed some limitations of these types of tests.  Specific requirements can pose challenges for recruiting and hiring operators, and agencies have found success with eliminating arbitrary barriers or providing resources that enable applicants to complete requirements successfully. Agencies are also working to reduce the number of operators who drop out between hiring and the start of training.

Training: U.S. transit agencies invest less in training compared to other industries. Bus operators have indicated that more training is often needed for map reading, schedule reading, and understanding the features of advanced technologies. Bus operators also need to hone their soft skills, such as interpersonal communication, problem solving, and personal resilience. However, only 20 percent of our survey respondents believe training in these soft skills was offered at their transit agencies. One of the most important findings of this study is the benefits of mentorship programs. Mentors participate in scheduled “ride-alongs” with new operator mentees, perform periodic check-in calls, and can also serve as their mentee’s liaison as questions arise. They provide needed support and guidance during the difficult first months of employment. Increasingly, transit agencies are formalizing mentorship programs by folding them into registered apprenticeship programs.

Safety, Health, and Working Conditions: Operator well-being directly affects retention and the costs and quality of bus services. To encourage nutritious diets, exercise, and responsible alcohol use, many transit agencies have active health and wellness programs. Work schedules designed to accommodate riders and optimize efficiency (such as weekends and split shifts) can make it challenging to attract and retain bus operators. According to our survey, some operators are given as little as four hours of notice before they are expected to report for their shifts. Unusual and unpredictable working hours can cause fatigue and stress among bus operators, especially those with childcare responsibilities. This can directly affect safety, according to our survey respondents. Mentors can support new employees as they gain traction and deal with on-the-job challenges.  Restroom access is an often-overlooked component of the bus operator’s working conditions, but one that can put a daily strain on the operator and lead to adverse health outcomes. Agencies can address this issue by preparing maps, installing portable toilets, and making arrangements with businesses along routes.

Retention and Motivation: Transit agencies have a wide range of programs to improve retention rates such as listening to operator concerns, providing career advancement opportunities, offering rewards programs, and establishing mentorship programs. Agencies can increase job satisfaction by involving bus operators in department meetings and decision-making processes. This gives operators a chance to be heard and highlight the problems they face. Providing opportunities for career advancement can also positively contribute to retention. However, most survey respondents indicated that their transit agency did not offer programs or training regarding career advancement. Agencies can reward their employees and host special events to acknowledge their contributions. Mentorship programs can also help with retention. Mentors find offering guidance to be rewarding as well as an opportunity to develop leadership skills. Despite the widespread benefits of mentorship programs to new and experienced operators, only six percent of respondents reported that their transit agency had mentorship programs.

On March 12, Robert Puentes (President of the Eno Center for Transportation) and Xinge Wang (Deputy Director of the International Transportation Learning Center) will lead a TRB webinar with a panel of transit agency officials to share key findings of Practitioner’s Guide to Bus Operator Workforce Management.”