Transportation Choices knows that transit is an essential part of our transportation system. A reliable and safe transit workforce is crucial to keep our communities moving— connecting people to jobs, education, healthcare, and essential services. It’s not just about reaching destinations; it’s also about fostering a sense of connection and empowering individuals to participate fully in society.
However, an unprecedented workforce shortage in the transit industry jeopardizes its ability to meet growing mobility demands. The consequences are already felt in communities, with reduced service schedules, longer wait times, increased strain on the remaining workforce, and reduced transit ridership. After declining to 20% of pre-pandemic levels in April 2020, transit ridership is rebounding nationwide, with the latest figures at 77%. However, nationwide, 96% of transit agencies surveyed by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) in 2022 faced workforce shortages, impacting their ability to deliver frequent service. According to WSDOT, expanding transit service will be challenging in Washington in the near term as transit agencies continue to grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and strive to restore their services to pre-pandemic levels.
Transportation Choices recognizes that a sustainable public transportation system depends on a thriving workforce, so addressing the transit workforce shortage remains one of our top priorities. Therefore, we are committed to supporting building robust systems for worker recruitment and retention throughout Washington.
To do so, we seek to comprehend the nuances of this challenge for agencies of varying sizes throughout the state. Our goal is to make a tangible impact by pinpointing best practices — collecting and sharing innovative recruitment strategies, implementing effective workforce development programs, and removing barriers that agencies face, all geared toward attracting and retaining top talent. The shortage is felt in every role – from bus operators to mechanics and electricians to maintenance staff – though TCC’s primary focus has been on drivers and operators.
We believe that a career in public transit can be truly remarkable, providing not only a fulfilling professional journey but also unique perks. Transit jobs come with economic stability, relatively good wages, and attractive benefits, all while offering the opportunity to serve the community. Each role in the industry plays a crucial part in the interconnected fabric of a community’s economic well-being, social equity, and environmental sustainability.
Unraveling the roots of the shortage
The factors contributing to the transit workforce shortage are complex and multifaceted. A big part of it is the aging workforce, as many transit workers are nearing retirement. The average age of a transit operator is 52.7 years, ten years older than the national average worker age in the US. This demographic shift contributes to an anticipated 200,000 job vacancies nationwide, which means we must prioritize the attraction and retention of a fresh wave of talent to ensure the continuity of a resilient workforce.
Another challenge is the intense competition for qualified drivers. The private trucking and e-commerce delivery sectors, for instance, often offer higher wages and more flexible schedules, drawing individuals away from transit careers. The APTA report highlights that nearly a third of transit workers leave for other industries, and about 20% opt for other types of driving in transportation and logistics (excluding transit).
In addition, certain barriers hinder recruiting and retaining transit workers, including challenging work schedules, demanding work conditions, perceived and real safety risks, strict drug testing requirements, and lengthy hiring processes. In some cases, the rising cost of living and a competitive commercial driving market combined with limited agency resources make it difficult for public transit agencies to offer wages that attract and retain skilled workers. According to the APTA report, approximately 40% of transit workers contemplate transitioning to jobs offering superior pay/benefits, flexible hours, and improved work-life balance. The APTA report also underscores a significant early-stage turnover, with more departures occurring within the initial two years, and often, the departures surpass retirements.
Building a thriving transit workforce has multiple benefits — it propels our economy (1:5 economic returns, generates jobs (87% of transit trips positively benefit the local economy), builds workforce pipelines, greens our cities (a typical trip has 55% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than driving or ride-hailing alone), and fosters everyone’s well-being. Thus, we need a comprehensive approach to tackle the root causes of the transit workforce shortage and establish an environment that attracts and retains top talent.
What we’re doing
By identifying the worker shortage as a key policy priority, our primary goal is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the factors contributing to the shortage of transit workers and how it impacts different agencies and different communities. We aim to identify a diverse range of interventions, both short-term and long-term, and determine which could best support efforts to effectively attract, train, and retain a thriving transit workforce. This knowledge will serve as the foundation for our work to educate the public, assist transit agencies, and collaborate with policymakers to develop and fund solutions that move the needle.
Our process, so far, includes a thorough review of academic research and industry best practices. We have also just started to seek insights from transit agencies, labor unions, non-profit organizations, and other experts nationwide to draw upon their valuable experience in implementing successful workforce development programs and policies.
Based on our initial research, we have identified a wide array of promising interventions. In the coming year, we will work closely with partners to assess their potential impact and determine if and how Transportation Choices can support implementation—whether through information dissemination, policy advocacy, or securing funding for workforce development initiatives. We aim to contribute to a thriving public transportation system supported by a valued and well-trained workforce, ensuring good jobs and reliable rides for everyone. Our legislative one-pager on this can be found here.
Transit agencies are acting quickly to improve the workforce shortage
Encouraging signs of progress are emerging locally and nationwide in addressing the transit workforce shortage. From increased compensation to innovative approaches for a more flexible and inclusive recruitment process, the industry is adapting to the changing landscape. Highlighted below are just some of the innovative programs agencies are exploring. We look forward to learning more about what more communities and agencies around the state are doing in this area – feel free to reach out to share!
- Compensation and benefits boost: While not every agency may have the resources, many agencies have increased starting pay, hiring bonuses, and current employee pay to attract and retain talent. Additionally, providing a range of benefits such as tuition, healthcare support for families, and childcare support is gaining traction (APTA Report, 2023). Transit agencies in Washington offer competitive pay and benefits, and they’re among the best nationwide.
- Efficiency in operations: Agencies offer flexibility in scheduling and shift coordination, implementing streamlined hiring processes to reduce inefficiencies, and strategically expanding recruiting capacity. Examples include a multi-department Schedule Modernization Team in COTA, Ohio, GCRTA in Cleveland had a 50% reduction in recruitment steps in 2022), King County Metro in Seattle hired a data specialist to track recruitment outreach.
- Improved work environment: Many agencies have improved the work environment, including upgrading break rooms and locker facilities and introducing amenities like massage chairs and improved gym facilities (APTA Report, 2023).
- Supporting employee well-being: Agencies are offering mentoring programs to plan career progression pathways, mental health support, establishing employee support groups, and building a positive agency culture to foster a better work experience. Notably, a few agencies that have explored mentoring programs report higher retention.
- Addressing safety concerns: To address safety concerns such as operator assaults, agencies have implemented proactive measures and provided training on handling safety incidents to make the job safer and more appealing to potential workers.
- Talent pool expansion: Many agencies established partnerships with military bases, academia, and offer referral bonuses to widen the scope of potential candidates.
- Flexible training for onboarding: Transit Agencies have adopted diverse options like online, hybrid, and off-hour training programs to increase accessibility and retention. Utah Transit Authority noticed greater retention when they implemented early onboarding training and assisted with CDL requirements.
- Open communication: Agencies that actively communicate drug policies to candidates and trainees, equipping them with the knowledge necessary to navigate recruitment protocols effectively, are able to meet the hiring criteria better. (APTA Report, 2023). (To address the potential limitations of the current 30-day drug testing methods, agencies can consider exploring USDOT’s new oral swab test rule, which has a significantly shorter detection window (5-48 hours), possibly allowing agencies to hire more operators and expand service. This nuanced approach can maintain necessary safety standards while potentially expanding the pool of eligible candidates, particularly in states with legal recreational marijuana.)
While many national leaders in the transit space have produced early research on the Transit Workforce Shortage (e.g., APTA and TransitCenter), we know the importance of local context. We want to learn how the workforce shortage in transit manifests in different regions of Washington, across agencies of diverse sizes, and how it impacts individuals based on race, ability, gender, and other factors. We aim to understand innovative programs and policies already in use and identify impactful recommendations for addressing this issue with an equitable lens. We believe this will set the stage for a thriving and inclusive transit workforce for the state that ensures reliable service and boosts ridership.
To do that, we’ll engage with various partners around the state. Our engagement plan includes:
- Surveying transit agencies and workers to hear directly about their experiences and what solutions and support would be helpful
- Talking one-on-one with a wide variety of partners around the state and country
- Convening listening sessions with subject matter experts to understand the multifaceted implications of the issue (pending funding)
- Presentations to groups with affected constituents who may want to learn more or share their experiences
If your organization or constituents want to discuss this issue, please email email@example.com. In particular, we’re always looking for folks to help us learn more about equity considerations for this work or groups that would like to help us advocate for new workforce development strategies, policies, and programs.