(Editor’s Note: This blog post includes a message from Metro Transit Interim General Manager Rob Gannon, followed below by a detailed accounting by Operations Manager Ted Harris, who outlines Metro’s efforts to hire drivers during our time of growth. Learn about the opportunity to #DriveForMetro.)
At Metro Transit, we strive to provide safe, reliable and consistent transit service. We know that hundreds of thousands of riders depend on us every day to get to work, to school, to shopping, and to an amazing variety of locations. And we take it to heart whenever we’re falling short of our customers’ expectations.
Due to a shortage of bus operators, we’ve seen a spike this summer in commute trip cancellations that has made it difficult for some of you to travel reliably using Metro. We provide about 12,000 weekday bus trips and though the number of canceled trips represents a small fraction of that, riders count on us to provide our service as scheduled – and the number of cancellations has been unacceptable.
We offer our sincere apologies to each of our customers who have experienced any inconvenience due to canceled peak-commute trips in recent months. Addressing this remains a work in progress, and Metro greatly appreciates the patience of riders who endure crowding or delays when a trip does not run due to lack of an available qualified operator.
Our transit operations and training sections continue to hire, train and promote transit operators to deliver on our commitments. About every two weeks, we add a group of new drivers. We have 23 new full-time operators on the road Aug. 29, with more classes of new part-time drivers and promoted full-time drivers in the pipeline. Their focus on safety and customer service are a testament to the quality we work to provide, and work to fulfill our pledge to customers to provide the service riders expect and deserve.
–Rob Gannon, Metro Transit Interim General Manager
Hiring and training drivers who are safe and customer oriented takes time
The spike in recent cancellations is due to a shortage of available qualified operators, an issue we are actively working to address through hiring and training. We just graduated another class of full-time operators, and all 23 will be on the road Monday, Aug. 29, to serve our customers. Class by class, we are working to add drivers to the workforce to address the issue of having enough operators to provide all of the service we have scheduled.
Metro has about 2,700 transit operators, and building and maintaining a workforce like that is a full-time effort. Since the large 2015 boosts in bus service, we have screened thousands of applicants, and then hired, trained and promoted hundreds of transit operators. We only hire and train operators who meet our high standards for safety and customer service, and who can meet the expectations of riders.
Why cancel trips?
A trip is canceled when we are unable to use a standby operator or find an operator available for a trip when there is an unexpected absence – such as driver illness – or when there is peak vacation time.
Standby and available operators can cover many of these “open trips,” but these drivers must be qualified to operate the route they fill in on – that way they know the nuances of routes, their turns and bus stop locations. Metro’s 2,700 part- and full-time operators operate from seven bases, each with a group of standby operators who can help fill in where needed. Overall, we deliver more than 99 percent of trips each day with drivers who operate the routes they picked, or routes they fill in on.
These days, due to the number of open shifts from retirements, illnesses, vacations and drivers out for training, there are more trips to operate than available qualified drivers.
What has Metro done to address this?
Since 2014, we have been hiring to meet the intense period of growth in bus service. We have focused on hiring drivers who are safe and customer-oriented to maintain service and grow to meet demand – however it has been challenging in the face of dynamics within our workforce and the region’s strong economy.
Metro is seeing much higher number of retirements in 2016 than previous years – over 200 drivers or other staff are expected to retire this year, which is potentially dozens more than previous years and above our projections. It takes several months to hire, train and backfill those positions. Experienced full-time drivers also get promoted into supervisory, management, or other positions, or to operate Link light rail or Seattle Streetcar service that Metro operates.
What steps are needed to expand the workforce?
When a full-time driver changes jobs, leaves or retires from Metro, we must replace them by promoting and training a part-time driver to full time – and that training takes about two to three weeks. Full-time driving requires enhanced skills in customer interactions, diffusing tense situations, and familiarity with more bus routes.
When a part-time operator leaves for full-time training, that creates a gap in the commute-time part-time workforce. For every part-time driver we promote to full-time, Metro must then also hire a brand new part-time driver to fill that work, which includes 33 days of training before they can drive.
While it is progress to promote part-time drivers to full time work, it increases the likelihood of cancelling trips during peak commute times those part-time drivers used to operate.
Our hiring, training and promoting efforts continue to be a work in progress as our service expands, and our workforce changes, ages and makes choices about when to retire.
What does a new driver go through?
We have been hiring operators on a large scale to meet our service demands and address the ongoing challenge of driver shortages.
Last year, our staff trained over 700 transit operators, and so far this year our dedicated Operations Training Team has extended 295 formal offers to hire transit operators. We are still recruiting operators and have received over 1,300 applications since re-opening recruitment in May.
Recruiting and training this many operators takes time. Before a Transit Operator can even begin training, they must complete several steps in the hiring process. These steps include an application screening, a 165-question questionnaire, panel interviews, a drug test and physical, as well as a review of applicants’ background, driving record and all previous employment. Applicants must also pass three exams administered by the state Department of Licensing to obtain a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) learner’s permit if they don’t currently have a CDL.
Training for part-time operators begins every two weeks with classes of 24 students. Trainees must adhere to strict standards, including that they attend every class on time and complete a yearlong probationary period. We take the responsibility of hiring Transit Operators extremely seriously and only invite the very best to sit behind the wheel of a Metro bus.
We are redoubling our efforts to avoid canceling back to back trips, and the first or last run of a route. If we cannot fill a trip, customer communications staff works to notify riders via our Puget Sound Trip Planner or transit alerts when possible, which also is shared via Twitter.
We hope this helps riders be aware of what is happening if their service is disrupted, and adjust their schedule or make alternate plans if necessary.
We’re committed to improve our capacity to hire and train the drivers and supervisors we need to operate the service dependably. Every few weeks we graduate more drivers into the system, and they are eager to serve our community. Due to the pace of retirements and growth in service, part-time drivers have the ability to be promoted to full-time work after as little as six months, a point that helps us recruit people who want more than part-time work.
Our community deserves the best we have to offer – quality drivers and a commitment to providing reliable service. Our efforts are ongoing and require vigilance, and our team will continue to work to serve our customers.
–Ted Harris, Metro Transit Operations Manager