Research Roundups

Research Roundup: Transit Workforce Shortage

Welcome to the first Transit Workforce Research Round-Up, a recurring TWC blog series summarizing recent research on a given topic. In this post, we discuss the transit workforce shortage.

Transit agencies face staffing shortfalls for frontline positions due to difficulties recruiting and retaining workers, combined with a high number of workers retiring. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average age of workers in the bus service and urban transit sector (52.4) is substantially higher than that of U.S. workers overall (42.3), with a large proportion of the workforce nearing retirement age.

Without new strategies, agencies that already experience recruitment and retention difficulties will continue to struggle. An analysis of BLS projections shows that employers of transit and intercity bus drivers1 will need to hire more workers between 2021 and 2031 than are currently employed in the occupation.

Openings for new hires are driven by separations and greater demand for workers. As BLS data indicate in the chart below, two factors account for the total number of separations: exits from the labor force, including retirements; and occupational transfers (for instance, a transit bus driver leaving to work as a school bus driver).

The number of separations is not equivalent to the turnover transit agencies experience, since transit employees may stay within their current occupations (as defined by BLS) but leave one company to work for another. As will be discussed later in this post, some evidence suggests that transfers to other employers are a bigger challenge for agencies than are retirements.

(For more occupational employment information, visit TWC’s Transit Workforce Data Dashboard).

Recent Research – Understanding the Workforce Shortage

While ridership has rebounded and many agencies have restored service levels over the last year, systemic challenges exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic continue to impact public transit workforce recruitment and retention. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many public transit research and advocacy organizations have released reports on the transit workforce shortage. Collected in TWC’s Resource Center, these publications identify key inhibitors of frontline worker recruitment and retention, including scheduling, compensation, health and safety, job entry requirements, insufficient social supports (e.g., childcare access), and a lack of information about career pathways to advance in the industry. Below, we highlight some of the notable findings from each resource.

TWC Brief: When TWC published our March 2022 brief on Bus Driver Recruitment and Retention in Challenging Times, agencies were reeling from COVID, with many frontline workers affected by illness and fear of exposure hampering recruitment and retention efforts. We identified several other challenges impacting recruitment of new operators, including certain aspects of Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) regulations and limited state capacity to process new CDL applications during the pandemic.

APTA Reports: The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released an initial report, synthesis report and toolkit, and mini guides addressing the transit operator and mechanic workforce shortage, with the first, a preliminary report, published in October 2022. APTA’s survey found that 96% of respondent agencies face a workforce shortage, and that over one-third of job offers at these agencies are turned down. Respondents indicated that more workers leave transit for other employment opportunities—both non-transit jobs within transportation and non-transportation jobs—than retire or exit the workforce, with many leaving for better pay, benefits, and/or hours. Nearly two-thirds of agencies reported a recent increase in workers leaving during their training and probationary periods, resulting in about twice as many departures in the first two years of employment as retirements. These findings suggest that frontline worker shortages cannot be attributed to retirements alone; public transit’s ability to create appealing jobs for people of all ages will be paramount to its sustainability.

APTA’s research reported that agency representatives and operations workers ranked compensation and work schedule as top factors driving worker separations, while operations workers also ranked assaults and harassment as key issues. APTA’s reports highlight that, although agencies have tried embedding incentives to increase interest (including hiring bonuses and higher starting wages), the fact that new operators in many agencies work part-time and are scheduled for less desirable or consistent shifts is still an obstacle to recruitment and retention.

SURTCOM’s Survey: In a March 2023 report from the Small Urban, Rural, and Tribal Center on Mobility (SURTCOM) based on a survey of managers at transit agencies in sparsely populated areas, more than 90% of respondents reported driver shortages within the past two years. Respondents cited driver compensation, a tight labor market, and retiring drivers as chief causes. Only 17% of managers stated that their agencies were fully staffed, and 11% said they had staffed less than half of their targeted workforce. The survey also indicated that transit agencies will face possible shortages of managers in addition to frontline workers. Almost two-thirds of respondent managers were over 50 years old, and nearly 40% planned to retire within five years; less than a third of agencies had a succession plan.

TCRP and TransitCenter Reports: Other recently released research on the workforce shortage includes TransitCenter’s July 2022 Bus Operators in Crisis report and webinar, and the TCRP Bus Operator Workforce Management: Practitioner’s Guide, written by the Eno Center, the International Transportation Learning Center, and Huber and Associates, Inc., made available in January 2023 (as well as a related webinar held in March). These reports identified compensation as a key driver of the shortage. While public transit jobs have traditionally offered the pay and stability of a middle-class career, starting wages for operators may be unattractive to prospective workers in increasingly expensive metro areas, with wage progressions designed such that increases in pay are too gradual to entice workers to stay.  

Although agencies with staffing shortfalls may attempt to increase operators’ hours to preserve service, the TCRP report found evidence of a connection between undesirable scheduling and workforce shortfalls, in which operators’ average hours decreased when their choice of shifts was more limited.

In addition to the issue of scheduling, a lack of access to childcare and other social supports can limit participation in the labor market, particularly for women (a finding highlighted in all of the reports cited here). Passenger behavior, including harassment of and assaults on operators, is also a major obstacle to recruitment and retention. Other hiring obstacles include inflexible and complex job entry policies (including high school diploma and CDL requirements), drug testing and background screening protocols, and difficult application processes that can discourage jobseekers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Meeting the Challenge

The transit industry’s challenges are reflected in other sectors; as the US economy has rebounded following the early months of the pandemic, employers in many industries have struggled to fill open positions. The unemployment rate is historically low, and workers across industries have seen increases in wages and benefits. While a positive development for frontline workers in general, a competitive labor market makes recruitment in any one sector more difficult.

The reports highlighted here offer potential solutions, upon which future blog posts will expand. These include increasing wages, rethinking advertising and marketing efforts, implementing more flexible work schedules, developing in-house CDL training programs, investing in mentorship and apprenticeship programs, and meeting workers’ needs through supportive services such as in-house childcare and subsidized housing. Developing robust career advancement opportunities and ensuring that workers are aware of them may also promote retention and reinforce workers’ long-term interest in transit.

These ideas underly many of the Transit Workforce Center’s resources and research objectives. To help support local transit agencies in recruiting and retaining operators and technicians, TWC developed #ConnectingMyCommunity: the National Transit Frontline Worker Recruitment Campaign, an online toolkit of outreach materials and best practices. The toolkit includes advertisement templates, recruitment videos, and strategies for creating an effective recruitment campaign.

The toolkit includes TWC’s mini case studies, which provide summaries of effective recruitment initiatives at several transit agencies. TWC is currently working on several in-depth case studies on innovative retention and recruitment strategies.

TWC is also developing a series of career stories to highlight the experiences of frontline transit workers and the paths for advancement available within this industry. The first was published as our inaugural TWC blog post. Please stay tuned for additional research and analysis forthcoming on the TWC Blog!

1While this occupational category includes workers employed outside of public transit, over half of workers in the occupation are employed in the industries Urban Transit Systems and Local Government, which serve as a proxy for public transit employment.