A MetroBus driver shortage that prompted two days of delays for riders last month may be part of a larger, nation-wide problem.
On July 21 and 31, Metro told St. Louis mass transit customers on both sides of the river to expect delays due to a shortage of drivers.
The shortages were caused when Metro found its workers were unwilling or unavailable to work an extra shift.
“From time to time we’ve had challenges with workforce shortages, as have our peers,” said Metro Executive Director Jessica Mefford-Miller. “Right now it is very pronounced.”
The problem was significant on the days when Metro felt the need to give passengers a heads up, Mefford-Miller said, but the shortage in drivers is part of a larger problem in the industry.
“It is challenging for us, especially during a strong economy, to compete with the wages offered by the private market,” she said, noting that Metro is a publicly-run agency. “Unemployment nationwide is very low, so it is difficult for all sorts of businesses across industries to attract and retain workers right now and that includes transit.”
Attracting and retaining drivers has been an ongoing issue for Metro and almost every other major transit system, Mefford-Miller said, and it’s likely because of the current economy and low unemployment numbers in the U.S.
Metro employs roughly 2,400 workers, almost all of which either drive or work on vehicles. Mefford-Miller said the majority of those employees are MetroBus drivers. On an average day, buses make about 4,880 trips.
“That’s a lot of service,” she said. “From time to time, we might miss a few, one to five of those trips, because of workforce shortages.”
Across the country, transit operations are desperate for drivers. According to CityLab, a publication focused on metro areas, cities like Seattle, New Jersey, Denver and others also were facing severe driver shortages.
Madison County Transit, which is unafilliated with Metro, runs bus lines that connect to the MetroLink.. It, too, is in need of more drivers and mechanics. MCT put out a call for applicants last week.
“Drivers are currently our most critical need,” MCT Executive Director Jerry Kane told the Alton Telegraph. “We’re looking for individuals who like people and like driving to fill these positions. We’ll even provide the training.”
ALL HANDS ON DECK
Metro’s workforce shortage also is paired with ongoing contract negotiations with St. Louis’ Amalgamated Transit Union Local 778, whose leaders said during the driver’s shortages that calls off were not planned by the union, but are reflective of workers who were “tired of being treated unfairly.”
Currently, drivers are being asked to pick up extra shifts to make sure Metro isn’t missing trips. Mefford-Miller said managers have also been picking up routes to help with the load. She said it’s an “all hands on deck” situation.
Steps are being taken to make working for Metro more attractive, she said. That includes job fairs, reshaping hiring requirements and paying for commercial driver’s license training.
“It’s more than warm bodies,” she said.
To be a MetroBus driver, applicants have to undergo drug and health screenings and a background check. Those requirements will remain the same, Mefford-Miller said. Other things might change, like the agency’s policy of promoting drivers to full-time status only after they have worked a part-time probationary period.
Even with those efforts, she said it will be hard to tell if the problem will get better or worse until the agency’s current driver class graduates, another requirement of new drivers.
MORE DELAYS POSSIBLE
More delays could be ahead, though Mefford-Miller said they are hard to predict. In the meantime, she said she believes Metro has continued to provide on-time, quality transportation to its customers.
“Delivering on-time, predictable, excellent service is our highest priority,” she said. “We are short workers a little bit, but we have done a pretty remarkable job of fielding that service for our customers. We’re leaning on our team and we’re leaning on our managers and together we’re devoted to serving our customers.”
She said that when there are shortages, Metro makes sure the same routes aren’t missed on consecutive days.
“We’re working to ensure that if we do miss trips, like on those challenging days, that we’re not missing consecutive trips on that same route,” she said.
Kavahn Mansouri covers government accountability for the Belleville News-Democrat, holding officials and institutions accountable and tracking how taxpayer money is spent.
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