What is working for TriMet like?

A TriMet bus with a Kombucha ad on the side of it framed by maple trees in yellow fall color leaves.

You’ve read the ads. You’ve seen the banners. You’ve rode the bus. TriMet is the middle of a huge hiring push as it struggles from a shortage of bus operators. Hundreds of drivers have departed the past two years, an exodus that is only likely to continue as boomers continue to retire in droves and others grow frustrated with unruly passengers and stressful conditions.

What is it actually like being in that seat? What makes a good bus driver? Is it a job worth having and is TriMet a good place to work? With a recently increased hiring bonus of $7,500 and increased starting wage, it could be just the ticket if you’re looking for a job with good pay and decent benefits.

I won’t lie, driving a 40 foot bus in an urban environment is a challenge. If driving stresses you out, if you don’t like dealing with people, if you hate the big city, this is not the job for you. However, if you are a people person, you can learn how to drive a big bus on tiny streets in the city, and TriMet will even pay you while you learn.

With the steady stream of folks quitting TriMet, you are probably asking yourself, there must be a good reason why they are leaving and why TriMet is having a hard time hiring? Plenty of people work here decades and enjoy it, or at least tolerate it enough to not quit.

What makes folks successful at TriMet?

It’s an easy job and it’s a hard job.

On the one hand, you just have to drive a bus and pick people up. On the other hand, that bus is sent down tight, city streets. On the one hand you have to be kind to people and dispense information when asked. On the other hand, those people are often intoxicated, mentally ill, agitated, forgetful, and looking for someone to take their frustrations out on.

People who seem to do well at TriMet are those who know what they are getting themselves into. If you are thinking about working at TriMet, go ride a bus like the 72, 15, or 6 from end to end. Watch the driver, look at the people in the bus, listen to the noise, take in the smells. Is this something you think you could tolerate for 8 plus hours a day? If not, keep looking for a different job.

The people I see who have the hardest time at TriMet are those who aren’t kind or empathetic to all people, and those who hate Portland or the big city. Look out the bus window on your test ride. Do you like what you see? Do you want to pick up the people on the bus? If not, keep looking for another job.

At TriMet, you’ll pick up the houseless, the unwashed, the mentally ill. You need to have a lot of tolerance for the whole kaleidoscope of humanity. If you’re a boomer that likes to tell racist jokes and complain about homeless encampments, this isn’t the job for you. If you’re from Clackamas County and you hate Portland, Portlanders, and driving in Portland, chances are you’ll hate TriMet.

A TriMet bus parked at Clackamas Heights Housing Project in Oregon City with a 50th Anniversary sticker on it.

I’m not trying to talk you out of it, but if all you want to do is drive and not deal with people, there are plenty of other commercial driving jobs that don’t involve giving folks rides. Don’t be one of those drivers who say, “It wouldn’t be a bad job if you didn’t have to pick up anyone.” Picking people up is the whole point of the job.

You need to have a big heart for people, a desire to be safe, thick skin, and a good head on your shoulders for all those weird situations. If you got all that, you’ll probably be a decent bus operator.

What makes it a good job?

TriMet is a 24 hour a day, every day of the year operation. It never stops, and as the last buses of the night are returning to the garage, the first buses of the morning are beginning to head out.

If you like working late nights, early mornings, and everything in between, you can find work at TriMet. However, if you want Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, this is not the job for you, although with enough seniority you can get hours like that.

Every day is different, even if a lot of days are the same. It’s a big scary world out there and you never know what’s going to happen, especially if you are on the extra board being a substitute bus driver every day. You never know who is getting on the bus, and while sometimes they are fun, sometimes they are challenging. The bus is a rolling microcosm of the world, a 40 foot long capsule of humanity pressed up against each other for better or worse. Everybody is on the bus, rich and poor, young and old, and it’s one of the rare places in our world where you can experience such a diverse mosaic.

The job also pays well. TriMet recently increased its starting pay to $25.24 an hour with top pay after three years at $33.65 an hour. That money stacks up pretty quickly, especially if you are working the extra board. Sure, you won’t become a millionaire at those rates, but for a job that only requires a high school diploma, it pays pretty well. Heck, it pays pretty well even for most jobs for college graduates.

It’s also a great job if you enjoy helping people and exploring new places. You’ll wear a lot of hats behind the wheel. Direction giver. Psychologist. Social worker. Conflict resolution adviser. Counselor. Pep talk giver and sometimes babysitter. You’ll soon surprise yourself with how much knowledge you build up about the city, its resources, and where to point people.

Things that make TriMet bad

Spend 10 seconds in the report area (where drivers sign their work for the day and find out their bus assignments) and you’ll hear more complaining than you’d hear at a neighborhood association meeting. Mostly I try to ignore it, but at times I do hear some truth. Not everything is sunshine and rainbows at TriMet, after all this is the drizzly Pacific Northwest.

The first thing is those schedules. Most work seems to end after midnight or start before 5:30 am. It’s hard spending time with friends and family who have normal hours at more normal jobs. Sure, you can make it work, but it isn’t easy.

Not all schedules are equal. Some routes are busy, long, and with short breaks. Others, you’ll pick up no one and have super long breaks. It makes no sense, and you’ll get frustrated with it’s arbitrariness.

Then there are split shifts. Whether you stay a mini-runner or go full time, you’ll end up doing your fair share of split shifts. Some are better than others, giving you enough time in the middle to do something else, close enough so you can just take that extra hour and go for a walk. However, essentially having a 12 or 14 hour day from beginning to end but only getting paid for eight or nine hours of it gets real old real quick.

These split shifts used to sort of make sense, because of very defined AM and PM rush hours and needing a lot of buses at those times but not in between the two. However, since the pandemic, the rush hours aren’t as pronounced on the bus, with most days looking more like Saturdays where there is just a steady increase through out the day, peaking around 3 p.m., but the split shifts have stayed at TriMet.

Then there is seniority. You pick your work schedule at TriMet, and vacation, and it’s all based on seniority. The longer you’ve been at TriMet, the more choices you have. This seniority system is both fair and unfair, logical and incredibly frustrating. When you start work at TriMet and you go full time, you’ll realize you have a choice, either enjoy the night shifts with the worst breaks in the sketchest parts of town with Tuesday and Wednesday as your days off, or work the extra board, where you might be able to get AM work but you’ll be working 12 hours a day, every day and never know your schedule.

When I first started at TriMet before the pandemic, it seemed like the work I was picking got better with every signup (we pick work every four months, three times a year, with additional smaller signups for holidays). The pandemic changed that as they cut back service, then added service only to cut it back again because of the driver shortage. I know eventually the work schedule will get better, but it’s hard knowing it might be years before I can work the time of day I want with the days off that I want.

This seniority based system is also hard. Younger people with children are stuck working split shifts and having weekdays off, while older folks with no kids at home and higher seniority scoop up those Monday through Friday AM shifts. Of course, it’s always changing, and the longer you are there, the better it gets, but it could still be years before you can get the work you want and you’ll be making a lot of compromises until then.

A bus parked in the snow with footprints leading from it with a view of the Sauvies Island Bridge in the background.

Then there is safety. Most of the time things are pretty safe on the bus, but sometimes it isn’t and the uneasy feeling creeps up on you that the bus feels, or is driving through, a lawless free for all. It’s no fun dealing with someone in a meth-induced psychosis by yourself, in the dark, in a lonely part of town, knowing that help is probably farther away than you want it. The dangers are real. Drivers have been shot, spit on, punched, and statistics point to it happening at alarming rates. It’s a rough city out there these days, but think about it, stuff could happen just as well walking to the store.

That being said, the drivers that tend to have problems with passengers are also the drivers that tend to be problematic. Stay calm, be nice to people, don’t escalate stuff, don’t say stupid things, and if it doesn’t look or feel right, protect yourself first. Customers know which drivers are the nice ones and which ones are the mean ones. If you’re one of the nice ones, you’ll find customers coming to your defense, saying the things you can’t say and watching your back. If you take care of your customers, your customers will take care of you.

It’s a stressful job. Sitting in traffic is stressful. Dealing with people every day is hard. Sometimes it’s scary out there, and the driving and lawlessness when it comes to following traffic laws these days is real. Sometimes the city is just off, everyone is cranky, and try as hard as you can, no one wants to be nice to you. This stress can take a toll on your body and mental health and is no joke. Exercise, talk to your friends, seek mental health help if you need it, eat good, healthy food, take your vacations. TriMet makes it easy to work, work, work, but you need to remember to take care of yourself first. You’re the only one at TriMet looking out for yourself.

The customers, well, they are both my favorite part of the job and my least favorite. Most are fine, some will warm your heart, and the special few will bring you a donut when they get on the bus, but others will make you wish you’d never came to TriMet. Be prepared to be blamed for things beyond your control, yelled at for things you didn’t do, berated for not knowing the unknowable. Either you can bite your tongue, stay calm, and just drive, or you can’t.

TriMet is sometimes a bureaucratic, nonsensical boondoggle of an organization. If you’ve been in the military, TriMet will feel very familiar. If you have a need for things to always make sense and to be efficient, TriMet might not be the place for you. Embrace the absurdity of the three ring circus and just keep rolling with it, appreciating it for what it is.

So should I work at TriMet?

I’m not sure. On the one hand, I like the job. Before the pandemic, it was the best job I’d ever had. Now I’m not so sure. It’s stressful, sometimes tedious, and the hours can be long and miserable.

The pandemic changed the job, and not always for the better. You aren’t mostly picking up commuters, with a problem child or two here or there. The problems have become more frequent, the nice folks fewer and farther between. Those pleasant interactions that used to be a lot more common place are fewer than they were. The past two years have been rough, and sometimes these days I question whether there aren’t easier ways to make a buck in this town.

That all being said, I still like it enough most days to keep showing up. What other job do you get people yelling “thank you!” as they hop out the back door? Where else do you get to chat with someone heading to visit a family member they haven’t seen in a long time and then pick them up afterwards and hear all about it? Where else can you see so much humanity? And where else can you drive a bus down streets never meant for a bus?

Did this blog help convince you to apply to TriMet? Put my name down saying I referred you so I can get a bonus!

This is a personal blog, the views expressed in this blog are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of TriMet.

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Don Iler

Don Iler

I’m a public transit enthusiast in Portland, Oregon. I love public transportation, history and writing.