Peer Mentoring Program Increases Retention and Decreases Absences of New Drivers

By Robert Fleig | 10/9/2023

Public Information Officer/Spokesperson
Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority
Cleveland, OH

A workforce shortage of drivers is a pressing issue being faced today in the public transit industry, including the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA), OH. While many factors making hiring and retaining workers more difficult are outside of GCRTA’s control, a program developed by the agency and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) local 268 is proving to be an innovative way for retaining newly hired drivers and maintaining their essential transportation services.

In August of 2022, after a successful three-month pilot of a peer mentoring program, the GCRTA and ATU local 268 decided to launch the new Positive Impact Program systemwide as a strategy to retain bus, rail and paratransit drivers. Results of the program to date show that the program is increasing retention and decreasing absences of new drivers and being noticed by other public transit agencies.

Through the first nine months since the program launched, GCRTA has seen an immediate impact on the retention and absenteeism metrics for our new drivers. “Eighty-two percent of new operators who have been paired with a mentor are still working at GCRTA vs only 56 percent of new operators who have not been paired with a mentor,” said Nick Biggar, GCRTA Hayden District director.

“We are confident that we can get our retention percentage numbers for new operators into the 90s as we continue to build and refine our program. Additionally, new operators who have been paired with a mentor have incurred 34 percent less absences and 47 percent less misses than their peers who have not been paired with a mentor,” continued Biggar.

GCRTA’s Positive Impact Program is used to help new drivers course-correct to ensure the successful completion of their probationary period. Building and refining the program is something the core team members discuss quarterly. Issues or problems experienced by veteran and new drivers are brought to the attention of the program’s core team members and are presented at meetings for awareness, and to identify ways of resolving them.

A recent example involves a new driver who was involved in a negative customer interaction. “Historically, these are the type of incidents that have led to new drivers being unable to complete their probationary period,” said Darnell Morris, assistant business agent for the ATU. “GCRTA management put their faith in the Positive Impact Program in the form of an intervention for this operator.”

A group of senior mentors were pulled together to address this issue with the driver, discuss strategies to deal with difficult customers and to ensure a proper support structure was established for the new driver. “That intervention conducted through the Positive Impact Program was the difference in retaining this operator, who is now thriving in their role and has multiple check-ins with their mentor each week,” continued Morris.

A great achievement to the success of the Positive Impact Program has been the side-by-side collaboration between GCRTA management and ATU International. At the start, and as the program continues to grow, GCRTA management and the ATU have moved forward as partners committed to the program’s success.

Jamaine Gibson, ATU International director of apprenticeship and workforce development, has not only served as an advocate to GCRTA through the beginning of the program, but has also been a spokesperson to other public transit agencies on how the program can serve as a model.

According to Gibson, GCRTA took a different approach to what everyone else was trying to do in a mentoring program. That approach was establishing an up-front partnership between labor and management. “When you have labor and management at the table, really working together, that is the impetus for a successful program,” said Gibson.

Additionally, developing metrics to show how the peer mentoring program is having a return on investment is another way GCRTA is doing it differently than everyone else. The metrics on how it affects retention, accidents and customer service complaints are being captured across three different classifications: bus, rail and paratransit.

“Going from 56 to 82 percent operator retention is a huge jump in our industry,” says Gibson. “How GCRTA obtained such a percentage jump in operator retention through their program is something other transit agencies will want to know in earnest.”

Creating that awareness with other agencies has been a priority for ­Gibson. Through the Transit Workforce Center, he has hosted talks by GCRTA’s Nick Biggar and ATU’s Darnell Morris on three national webinars regarding the joint workforce development of GCRTA’s peer mentoring program.

Through the webinars, Gibson has been receiving requests from other transit agencies asking if they can travel to Cleveland and see the program in action. “I have transit agencies and ATU Locals who are ready to spend their resources just to come spend one day in Cleveland to see what GCRTA has implemented throughout their authority,” he said.

“Our Positive Impact Program is quickly becoming a tremendous asset at GCRTA in helping us retain our newly trained operators and reducing our labor shortage,” said GCRTA Transportation Manager Daveda Bencs. “The Positive Impact Program could be one of the tools to help tackle the labor shortage being experienced throughout the public transit industry.”

As Gibson collaborates with GCRTA and other agencies on promoting the excellent merits of GCRTA’s Positive Impact Program, the goal for GCRTA is simple: grow the program to the point where every new bus, rail and paratransit driver hired will be assigned to a mentor on their last day of training.