Apprentice program targets bus driver shortage

A driver shortage led Metro Transit to cut trips on some routes this summer. File photo
A driver shortage led Metro Transit to cut trips on some routes this summer. File photo

Metro Transit is joining a state apprenticeship initiative for help filling vacant driver and mechanic positions.

The transit service needs about 1,600 drivers to fully staff its 130 bus routes but is roughly 90 drivers short of that goal. The staffing shortage was a factor this summer when Metro Transit cut trips on some routes.

Metro Transit announced Sept. 18 that it would join the Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative for help with recruiting and training new employees. Operated by two state agencies, the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, the program offers grants of $5,000 per apprentice to help launch new apprenticeship programs at businesses across the state.

As it pilots the apprenticeship model, Metro Transit aims to enroll an inaugural class of 40 apprentices.

Brian Funk, Metro Transit’s deputy chief operating director for buses, said the apprenticeship was modeled on a program pioneered by Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose, California. Metro Transit recruited a group of about 35 experienced drivers to serve as mentors earlier this summer, and it registered its first group of 15 apprentices in September.

Funk said the transit service typically loses about 5–8 percent of first-year drivers and is aiming to improve its retention rate. New drivers start out part-time for the first few months, and some leave the job when they’re offered full-time employment elsewhere.

Others have difficulty managing the stresses of the job, like interacting with customers, and Funk said the mentors are “a resource, another person who has been through the ups and downs but understands for the long game this is a great place to be.”

Funk said the state grant dollars would reimburse Metro Transit for apprenticeship activities, including one-on-one meetings with mentors and group sessions with the other new and experienced drivers enrolled in the program.

New drivers must complete five to six weeks of training and usually drive part-time for at least three or four months before a full-time driver position becomes available, although many choose to remain part-time. All part-time drivers are guaranteed pay for at least 30 hours per week, even if they work fewer hours.

With an annual attrition rate among bus drivers of 8–12 percent, Metro Transit is almost always recruiting. Funk said while some of those drivers quit or are lost to retirement, the attrition rate also includes drivers who get promotions or move into prized jobs, like piloting the transit service’s light-rail vehicles.

Metro Transit reports that it collaborated with its drivers’ union to develop the new apprenticeship program. Apprentices are paid during training and would be eligible for benefits and a starting wage of $19.94 per hour if hired. Metro Transit notes that even part-time workers earn a pension.

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