Why can’t TriMet hire enough bus operators?

A Gillig 30 foot bus operated by TriMet wrapped with an advertisement about job opportunities at TriMet. The ad features four TriMet employees talking about how much they enjoy working at the transit agency. Cheree, a bus trainer says, “The benefits are awesome, the pay is outstanding.” Caryn, a planning engineer says, “Helping to build the future of transit is rewarding.”

TriMet is throwing around $7,500 bonuses and its highest starting wage ever. It cut back service this winter to the already drastically low Spring 2020 levels and is now cutting service even more in the Fall as the shortage continues to see no end in sight. In addition to bus trips being cancelled every day, even riding the MAX is a daily game of, “how late will my MAX be this time?”

How did a gig that used to be selective, and had a reputation for being one of the “good jobs” in town, get to the point where TriMet is cutting back service to some of the worst levels ever seen because of lack of operators? What happened to the Portland’s once nationally recognized transit system, the one city leaders used to love to tout when it was receiving accolades for urban planning and liveability?

It’s complicated and a perfect storm of bad events; some has been completely out of TriMet’s control, but a lot has been self-inflicted. As riders return to transit and the region looks to cut carbon emissions, it will need a good public transit system with the folks to operate it. However, if service cutbacks continue, runs are cancelled, and the service stays unreliable, people will stop riding public transit, and this will create a death spiral for the agency. These problems need addressing now, both for the longterm carbon goals for the city, and for the solvency of the agency.

Here are some reasons why TriMet can’t find enough operators:

  1. Demographics

When I started a few years ago at TriMet, one of my trainers said that two-thirds of the operators there could retire at any moment if they wanted to. Now this is obviously anecdotal, but I saw what they meant. Looking around the report area I could see most of the folks working were 55 and older, just biding their time before they could start collecting their (no longer available to new drivers) pensions or Social Security. This isn’t TriMet’s fault, though management has been aware it’ll be an issue for awhile.

TriMet knew this was a problem years ago yet as the pandemic happened, it went with short term solutions. It froze hiring for a year, and encouraged folks to retire. This is on top of TriMet’s years long hiring freeze during the worst years of the Great Recession. A company like TriMet, with constant turnover and retirements, needs a steady stream of new talent just to maintain current service levels, let alone expand service. It can’t just pray for rain when it suddenly needs a flood of candidates. Driving a bus isn’t for everyone and with standards including a clean driving record and needing to pass a drug test, you can’t just grab anyone off the street.

2. Driving for TriMet no longer has the same benefits or pay

TriMet fought hard the past decade to destroy the benefits that once made driving a bus in Portland one of the better jobs in town. It eliminated pensions, reduced retiree health care benefits, stopped paying all health care premiums, and did all this while awarding bonuses to TriMet executives and undertaking one large capital project after another.

Also, wages have not kept pace with inflation or the cost of housing in what has become one of the most expensive metro areas to live. If being a bus driver is a ticket to the middle class, it should at least pay wages that allow workers to afford to live in the city they work.

The view out the rear window of one of TriMet’s new 60 foot long articulated buses.

3. Bad morale

Morale was low at TriMet even before the pandemic, and it hasn’t improved as bus operators have become the punching bag of a society upended by the pandemic. Being on the frontlines in a city that charitably could be described as “going through a rough patch” is hard. Assaults against operators are up. The driving on the streets is more aggressive, lawless, and stressful. Dealing with the mentally ill and drug addicted daily in a kind manner is hard for drivers trained to operate a large vehicle and not to be social workers. Combine that with the high standards TriMet holds its drivers to, and it’s no wonder nobody wants the job.

Everyone at TriMet has stories about friends who left the company for a better job, benefits, and hours while making the same amount of money using their CDL (looking at you garbage truck drivers)without having to deal with a public that is frequently unhinged. I love this job, but even on my bad days, I look at other jobs and think, is it worth staying here?

4. It’s a difficult job

The job was challenging before the pandemic. Split shifts (work from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. then again from 2 a.m. until 6 p.m. without getting paid for the time in between), split days off (how does Thursday and Sunday off sound to you?), long hours (eight hour shifts are rare), bad traffic, aggressive drivers, road reliefs (be sure to factor in an hour of barely compensated for time to get to a place to start your work), cranky customers, and porta potties for restrooms if you’re lucky sometimes.

The pandemic made none of that easier. A stray bullet struck a driver, buses caught in the crossfire in a city where incidences of gun violence have increased. The level of duress among customers has also increased, with the pandemic eliminating so many of structures that folks with mental illness relied on. Then there is the skyrocketing drug problem and just general feeling of lawlessness that pervades the streets.

With all of that, it’s not surprising many take a look at TriMet and pass on the job. Sure it’s a high wage, but when it lacks a lot of the benefits it used to have, it’s not surprising people take a look at what’s happening now on the streets and keep looking.

What can TriMet do to fix its hiring problems?

The number one thing TriMet could do to fix the hiring problems it has is MAKE THE JOB MORE ATTRACTIVE. Make it so attractive that it’s a competive job to get. Bring back the pensions, or at least increase the amount contributed to employee retirement plans. Pay all health care premiums. Reinstate retiree health benefits. Increase pay for all operators, not just new operators. Eliminate split shifts. If TriMet did these things, TriMet would have no problem finding operators quickly and retaining those they already have. Instead TriMet and ATU Local 757, the union representing operators, moved to roll over the current contract. After two years of being on the frontlines in a scary world, TriMet has done little to show its appreciation to operators who kept showing up throughout all of it.

TriMet also needs to act as quickly as possible, because the operator shortage is not a short term problem but one that will plague the agency for years to come. Years you say? Yes, it will take years for TriMet to have as many operators as it had before the pandemic. Why years? What do you mean these recruitment bonuses and increased wages for beginning drivers aren’t working?

Let’s just say TriMet is meeting its recruitment goals, which it currently isn’t, and gets a class of 25 going every seven weeks. Five of those 25 won’t make it out of training, another seven will be fired or leave during the first six month probationary period, another five or six will leave in the first three years, which means those class sizes don’t really mean a whole heck of a lot long term for the company.

Meanwhile, operators keep leaving. Many who joined TriMet, when it still offered pension and retiree health benefits, are just waiting to hit their 10 year mark with the company (when they are vested with those benefits) to leave. And the company’s demographics still skew older, with the clock still ticking and retirement dates approaching. All of which means these new hires are just a drop in the bucket for what the need is.

The number of people leaving TriMet will also remain a steady stream. Because folks hired the past few years who get to their three year mark are vested in their retirement money, and TriMet has few other incentives for keeping people long term anymore outside of a free bus pass when you retire, plenty are taking the money and running, frustrated by long hours, unsafe conditions, and aggressive drivers.

Then there are rail operators. Rail also has retirements, folks leaving, and it takes even longer for someone to come straight from the street to behind the controls of a MAX train. TriMet just announced yesterday changes to its policy which allows folks who complete bus training to go straight on to rail operator training without having to operate a bus, but how many takers it will get for the option remains to be seen.

Any problem is fixable, but whether TriMet is going to act with the urgency needed to fix what is a pretty dire problem at this point remains to be seen. If TriMet continues to cut service at a time when people are looking for alternatives to driving thanks to high gas prices, they won’t see transit as a viable option, and TriMet will lose a valuable opportunity to get them out of their cars.

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

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