Case Study: Managing the Labor Shortage at Transit Agencies

The American workforce is undergoing a generational shift as the country seeks to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. People are voluntarily leaving their jobs in record numbers, while employers are scrambling to secure the workers they need to keep business moving. [1] Transit agencies and providers are no exception. When the pandemic began, ridership on transit plummeted and many transit employees either resigned out of fear of virus infection or were subjected to mass layoffs. From March to April of 2020, employment in the transit and ground passenger transportation industry fell from about 498,000 to 321,000 employees. Industry employment during the pandemic hit its lowest point in July 2020 with about 265,000 individuals. Employment in the transit and ground passenger transportation industry has increased since then, but remains at 84% of pre-pandemic levels. As of September 2021, about 416,000 people were employed in the industry in the United States (Chart 1). [2]

 

Chart 1: Employment in the transit and ground passenger industry fell as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and has yet to return to full capacity.
Click here to view in separate tab.
Credit: Shared-Use Mobility Center with data provided by Bureau of Transportation Statistics

 

This employee shortage has real implications for the day-to-day operations of transit agencies. Agencies like TriMet in Oregon and Metro Transit in the Twin Cities have cut bus route frequencies, leading to delays for customers. [3, 4] The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York City has resorted to recruiting retired subway operators back into their positions. [5] Metro Transit in the St. Louis area has announced plans to temporarily cut service hours and certain bus routes and to expand microtransit services in place of these routes. [6] The Albany Transit System in Georgia, which has only half of its 32 bus operator positions filled, is offering $1,000 signing bonuses to new drivers. [7] Other smaller agencies report spending more dollars of their advertising budgets to directly recruit bus operators, cutting microtransit and van services, hosting job fairs, and raising starting pay rates or offering hiring bonuses. In certain cases, people who have accepted a job offer as a transit operator or mechanic do not show up for their first day of work.

This crisis, while appearing sudden, has been in the making for a significant period of time as the transit workforce is aging. Transit agencies, researchers, and other officials can use this brief to better understand the root causes of this labor shortage, how the COVID-19 pandemic might affect their workforce over the coming years, and to access regional data that guides recruitment decisions moving forward. Transit officials must equip themselves with data in order to properly navigate this crisis and to advocate for changes that will positively impact the future of their workforce, their agencys’ services, and public transit more broadly.

Early Signs of Workforce Challenges

The US transit industry had an aging workforce well before the COVID-19 pandemic. 30.4% of transit employees were ages 55 or over in 2010. By 2020, the proportion of transit staff in this age group increased to 42.2%, compared with only 25.2% of employees across the entire transportation industry and 23.9% of employees across the entire US workforce (Chart 2). [8] Expressed in another way, the average age of transit employees in 2020 was well above that of other industries at 52.1, compared to 43.9 for the entire transportation industry and 42.5 for for the entire US workforce (Chart 3). [9] A large proportion of transit workers were likely to retire en masse regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Chart 2: The transit industry is aging at a rate significantly higher than the transportation agency at large and the US workforce overall.
Click here to view in separate tab.
Credit: Shared-Use Mobility Center with data provided by Bureau of Transportation Statistics

 

Chart 3: The median age for employees working in bus service and urban transit is higher than the median age for employees in all other transportation industries.
Click here to view in separate tab.
Credit: Shared-Use Mobility Center with data provided by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

 

Industry Growth Slows Post-Pandemic

Labor economists from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) foresee a lasting impact on the growth of the transit workforce. In 2019, BLS projected that the workforce in the transit and ground passenger transportation industry would grow by about 5% over a 10-year span (by 2029). [10] As a result of the pandemic, BLS now projects that this workforce will grow by 3% in a moderate impact scenario and by only 0.4% in a strong impact scenario in the same period of time. Bus drivers, subway and street car operators, and bus and truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists in the transit and ground passenger transportation industry are expected to have similar or more adverse employment growth patterns in these scenarios:

Employment Growth Projections for Occupations in the Transit and Ground Passenger Transportation Industry between 2019 and 2029

 

Occupation NAICS Code
Moderate Impact Scenario Strong Impact Scenario
All Employees n/a 2.9% 0.4%
Bus and Truck Mechanics and Diesel Engine Specialists 49-3031 0.3% -2.1%
Bus Drivers, Transit and Intercity 53-3052 -0.2% -2.5%
Subway and Street Car Operators 53-4041 2.9% 0.4%

Table 1: Projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on how certain occupations in the Transit and Ground Passenger Transportation industry will grow or shrink between 2019 and 2029 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Credit: Shared-Use Mobility Center with data provided by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [11]

 

The numbers above demonstrate that transit agencies should expect difficulties ahead in recruiting transit operators and mechanics given the current circumstances. Taking this into consideration, transit agencies and providers can access wage and employment data on these specific occupations across industries so that they can be more informed on how to attract and retain employees. BLS has compiled information on occupational employment and wages as of May 2020:

In each of these profiles, users can see the wage distribution for these occupations by industry, state, and (non-)metropolitan area. Recruiters, policymakers, and other transit officials can use this information to see the concentration of employees in peer regions by obtaining a number called a location quotient. For example, a transit agency in rural or suburban coastal Oregon can use this profile to see that bus drivers in western Washington, are paid on average about $13,000 more per year ($35,460 vs $48,400 respectively). [12] Using this information, an Oregon transit agency can ask themselves certain questions:

  1. Are their wages reflective of the information expressed in this table?
  2. If so, are their wages competitive compared to western Washington or other peer regions?
  3. Are wages competitive with peer industries as well, like charter buses, tourist buses, school buses, etc?
  4. Is the agency expecting to suffer a labor shortage? If so, how might changes in wages or other practices affect their ability to recruit and retain bus drivers?
  5. If the agency cannot immediately change its wage rates for their bus drivers, are there other incentives they can use to recruit bus drivers? Paid training? Hiring bonuses? Improved benefits? Apprenticeship programs? Flexible schedules?

The data in these summary pages can help agencies answer important questions. On top of this, these pages have links to other pages so that users can get more detailed information if they wish to investigate relevant information more.

Employment Ideas and Solutions

Executives and other decision-makers at transit agencies can consider non-wage incentives or changes in labor practices in order to recruit new employees as well. Transit recruiters are competing against recruiters in other industries during this widespread labor shortage. Moreover, operators and other transit employees have a difficult job in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic; on top of working through tough schedules and navigating through challenging traffic conditions, transit operators in particular have an elevated risk of virus exposure. [13] In 2019, TransitCenter recommended that on top of accounting for pay, transit agencies should work to improve the physical working environment for transit workers. Some of these improvements include giving operators adequate access to restrooms along bus routes, designing buses and other transit vehicles to have all-door boarding, allowing staff to have more flexibility in scheduling their shifts, and creating mentorship and apprenticeship programs that recruit younger members of the workforce. [14] Some transit agencies recruit and retain mechanics, operators, and administrative employees through high school and college internships and in-house professional development programs. The COVID-19 pandemic presents agencies a new opportunity to explore how they can positively change working conditions for their transit operators and other manual laborers.

Conclusion

Many challenges lie ahead for the transit industry in regards to an exacerbated labor shortage. If agencies cannot effectively recruit transit operators and mechanics, their service will be negatively impacted for the long term. While no one solution may prove to be effective in the short term, it is important for staff at transit agencies to equip themselves with the proper data and explore changes in work conditions so that they are informed about policy decisions moving forward. Employees in the transit industry are aging at a faster rate than others and COVID-19 is expediting peoples’ decisions to leave their jobs. The supply of transit operators and mechanics will likely decrease over the coming decade and transit agencies should use as much information as possible to counter this challenge. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics provides valuable information on wage practices in this industry–transit agencies should use this information and other data to their advantage in a proactive manner. Policymakers at transit agencies can also consider soliciting holistic feedback from operators and mechanics and explore how to improve working conditions for these positions. Transit agencies should see this inflection point as an opportunity to consider how they can recruit and retain their workforce.

Published on November 5, 2021

References

  1. Ben Casselman, The New York Times: “Workers Quitting Their Jobs Hit a Record in the U.S. in August”, published October 12, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/12/business/economy/workers-quitting-august.html.
  2. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. Department of Transportation: “Transportation Employment – Transit and Ground Passenger Transportation”. https://data.bts.gov/Research-and-Statistics/Transportation-Employment-Transit-and-Ground-Passe/v8vk-h5g4. Accessed October 25, 2021.
  3. Jayati Ramakrishnan, The Oregonian/OregonLive: “TriMet Faces Driver Shortage as it Looks to Rebuild from Pandemic”, published September 18, 2021. https://www.oregonlive.com/commuting/2021/09/trimet-faces-workforce-shortage-as-it-looks-to-rebuild-from-pandemic.html.
  4. Ava Kian, Pioneer Press/TwinCities.com: “Metro Transit Grapples with Bus Operator Shortage”, published October 4, 2021. https://www.twincities.com/2021/10/04/metro-transit-grapples-with-bus-operator-shortage/.
  5. Clayton Guse, New York Daily News: “MTA Asks Newly Retired NYC Subway Operators to Return as Crew Shortage Cripples Commutes”, published September 26, 2021. https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-mta-retirees-subway-shortage-20210926-sbevdxwfhfgvxjfezeerzx5oqm-story.html.
  6. Missouri Public Transit Association: “Covid-19 and Staffing Shortages Cause Missouri Transit Providers to Reduce Service”, published October 22, 2021. https://mopublictransit.org/2021/10/22/covid-19-staffing-shortages-cause-missouri-transit-providers-reduce-service/.
  7. Alan Mauldin, Albany Herald: “Albany Transit Plans to Offer $1,000 Signing Bonuses for New Drivers”, published October 14, 2021. https://www.albanyherald.com/news/albany-transit-plans-to-offer-1-000-signing-bonuses-for-new-drivers/article_4f33d358-2d22-11ec-aa37-670665dd3da5.html.
  8. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. Department of Transportation: “Employment in Transportation: Employment in Transportation and Related Industries”. https://data.bts.gov/stories/s/caxh-t8jd#aging-of-workers-in-the-transportation-and-warehousing-sector42.2%25. Accessed October 25, 2021.
  9. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey”. https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18b.htm. Accessed October 25, 2021.
  10. Elka Torpey, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Effects of the Pandemic on Projected Employment in Selected Industries, 2019-29”, published February 2021. https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2021/data-on-display/alternate-projections.htm#BLStable_2021_2_5_14_0.
  11. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Pandemic Alternate Scenarios Projects”, published September 8, 2021. https://www.bls.gov/emp/publications/pandemic-scenarios.htm.
  12. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2020: 53-3052 Bus Drivers, Transit and Intercity”, published March 31, 2021. https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes533052.htm.
  13. David Michaels: “Protecting Transportation Workers and Passengers from COVID: Gaps in Safety, Lessons Learned, and Next Steps”, published February 4, 2021. https://transportation.house.gov/imo/media/doc/Testimony%20-%20Michaels.pdf.
  14. TransitCenter: “TransitTools no. 12: Bus Operators + Transit”, published August 15, 2010. https://transitcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/BusDriving.pdf.