Thinking Beyond Wages

By Christy Wegener | 9/15/2023

Executive Director
Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority
Livermore, CA

The public transit industry has been facing a deficit in its operator workforce for years now. The pandemic worsened it with early retirements, but also carried a secondary impact on how and when people want to work. Additionally, there is a generation coming into the workforce who value flexibility, autonomy, inclusivity and work/life balance.

For many agencies—including my system, the Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority in the east Bay Area—hiring and retaining operators feels like treading water, where we are onboarding as many new operators as we lose each month. Soon, we will face a silver tsunami of retirement without the backfill of younger operators waiting in the ranks. I have participated in recruitment conversations for years, and frankly those conversations are always narrowly focused on economics. While paying a competitive wage is important, there are things leaders can do beyond wages that can build value, increase happiness, help with recruitment and improve new employee retention.

First, it is important to recognize that we require our workforce to do SO much more than just drive a transit vehicle. Public transit agencies have had to increasingly step into the role of social workers and interventionists in our post-pandemic reality. As we embrace these new social responsibilities, we have a corresponding responsibility to our workforce to not ignore that each day our operators are faced with individuals with mental illness, homelessness and drug and alcohol addiction, and racism/sexism and unruly and aggressive behavior. We ask these good people to drive heavy machinery safely and on-time, collect fares, track ridership, enforce policies, be customer-focused and act as our eyes on the street every day.

It is critically important that operators have access to well-established feedback loops and that management is not firewalled from what is happening in the field. This way, tools, training and support can be easily provided as incidents and trends arise. We recently launched an electronic reporting system that simplifies the process for reporting safety issues and incidents, and so far, the feedback has been positive. It helps hold leadership accountable to responding to the workforce, which goes a long way in building trust.

Secondly, we need to take a long look in the mirror and accept that what our industry offers in terms of work schedules, job requirements and operational policies are not always attractive to today’s job seekers. We are competing with private employers whose working conditions are vastly different to ours. New operators typically start with the least seniority and therefore have the least control over regular days off and their daily schedule. For our system, the newest operators tend to have split shifts over long spreads, without weekends off. If you’re a single parent, forget trying to find childcare during the hours and days you need it. Though these are real barriers for our industry, they are not insurmountable.

Think about split-shift pay differentials and employer-provided gym memberships. Consider childcare subsidies or an employee emergency childcare service. Is there a quiet room at your facility where operators can get some rest between shifts? Do you have a well-stocked vending machine? Have you considered workforce housing? These additional benefits can go a long way toward alleviating some of the less glamorous aspects of our industry.

Tactically, we should put our workforce front and center in the service planning process instead of taking a reactive approach to addressing their comments. Agencies should take a human-centered approach to service design. This means ensuring that schedules have adequate running and recovery time so that operators are not stressed or fatigued; that there are efforts to secure restroom access at all route termini; and that there is active engagement with operators so that they can weigh in on routes and service changes before they happen, as well as after. Inviting the workforce to have a seat at the table as service decisions are made will result in a better product for everyone.

I attended my first APTA Transit CEO’s Seminar in Houston this past May. My biggest takeaway came from the session highlighting the Transit Workforce Readiness Guide. The speaker during that session, APTA staffer Carita Ducre, did not shy away from highlighting what challenges us to recruit and retain younger workers, and shared some remarkable yet simple ways our industry can embrace change. Thanks to Carita, we will be looking at painting an Instagram-worthy photo wall to encourage pictures and social media posts. It may not move the needle on ridership, but it can be a meaningful step in building pride for the workplace.

Bottom line: Don’t be still, don’t be stagnant, don’t just focus on economics, and don’t be afraid to try new things. Celebrate your workforce. Share your successes and failures. Because the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. Your workforce deserves better than that.