The State of Transit: Recruiting a New Workforce

Mike Bookey
Mike Bookey

by Aug 22, 2018Transit

by Aug 22, 2018Transit

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WITH LOW UNEMPLOYMENT, THE RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION OF QUALIFIED EMPLOYEES IS TAKING A FRONT SEAT. An organization that thinks strategically and proactively about how to attract and keep employees will gain the leading edge during the current job boom.

This is especially true in transit, which faces the additional pressures of an aging workforce at a time when services are growing. Communicators need to rethink how they identify potential employees, market the benefits and realities of a job in transit and create a positive experience for new hires.

The End of a Booming Generation

The establishment of the Federal Transit Administration in the 1960s created a boom in transit hiring. Many of the staff hired in the 1970s and 1980s became lifer employees. Some agencies estimate that more than half of their drivers are 55 or older. The result is a transit workforce that needs to be quickly repopulated by younger workers.

Filling positions has been a challenge for agencies across the industry. Pacific County Transit in Washington was forced to pare down its routes and transit offerings because of a lack of workforce. In the Twin Cities region of Minnesota, Metro Transit was so alarmed by the looming retirement eligibility of its drivers that they launched an aggressive campaign they dubbed “Come Drive With Us” to boost applications. The agency, which operates 132 routes across seven counties, launched radio ads, bus wraps, billboards and social media, all of which heavily promoted the position’s relatively competitive starting wage.

Growing Demand of Transit Services

As agencies grow their transit services to meet demand, they’re not only having to fill existing positions, but also entirely new or expanded positions to fulfill new service. Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD), for example, added light rail transit and bus routes as part of one of the largest voter-approved transit projects in the country. In a 14-month period, RTD opened four new service corridors and as a result are experiencing what their CEO David Genova calls a “significant shortage of bus and rail operators.”

Kitsap Transit had seen its services grow in recent years to serve a booming population. They even added a Fast Ferry service to shuttle commuters from Bremerton to Seattle.

This is why Kitsap Transit teamed with DH for a targeted operator recruitment campaign. We designed a digital outreach strategy that targeted audiences most likely to apply, including younger job seekers interested in learning a trade at an entry level. We drove qualified leads directly to Kitsap Transit’s application webpage by promoting a series of videos developed by Kitsap Transit. The videos featured their diverse workforce and a leading message of “great pay, great benefits and paid training.”  These videos outperformed expectations and industry averages on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Google AdWords. During their two-month campaign window, they exceeded their hiring goal.

Marketing a Complex Job

Jobs in transit come with tremendous benefits — competitive salaries, extensive benefits, paid training, and job security — but they also come with unique challenges. The requirements of the job itself can dissuade a younger demographic from applying. Operators have unusual work schedules (late night, early morning, or split shifts). It can be a solitary job — and stressful dealing with busy streets and interactions with riders. The job requires absolute punctuality and rigor around bathroom breaks. Naturally, operators can’t use mobile devices while driving and can feel disconnected in an increasingly digital culture.

The operator position functions much the same way it did back in the 1970s, but at a time when the workforce has undergone a dramatic cultural shift. It’s not just that younger generations have grown up using technology, but they tend to value things like workplace flexibility and autonomy, opportunities to grow and learn new skills, and meaningful interactions with coworkers. In short, many jobs in transit can be at odds with the values and skill sets of younger generations.

Retaining New Hires

Even after new employees have been hired, there’s the issue of allocating time and resources to effectively train these new operators. And even if new hires complete training — paid for by the agency — the new hire may realize the job isn’t for them and move on, a loss of the agency’s investment. This rate of turnover is worsened if these new hires didn’t have an accurate expectation of the job they were taking.


Communicators play a big role in helping their agencies recruit and retain employees. Following are our recommendations about things to keep in mind:

  • Target. Target. Target. Spend your recruitment dollars on the right audience. We recommend focusing on audiences: 1) who traditionally have been attracted to and successful in these positions, 2) who are ideal candidates for this position but just don’t know about it, and 3) with whom you want to close gaps, such as bilingual drivers to serve non-English-speaking passengers. The goal is to serve up qualified leads.
  • Explain the benefits of the position. Another challenge across the industry is that younger people entering the workforce or looking to begin a longer-term career aren’t necessarily aware that transit operator jobs are solid, well-paying and secure jobs. Help them envision what it’s like to be in the job using video or testimonials.
  • Craft compelling, tested messages to increase meaningfulness. Think outside the box about what is going to matter to this group. How do you help potential applicants feel inspired and explain the vast opportunities of the job without setting false expectations? And then test these messages to ensure they resonate. Interview people who are job seekers within that target profile and talk to operators you’ve recently hired.
  • Streamline the application process. Think of application processes like a customer journey. Share messages that help set the right expectations for the job to attract well-suited employees. Help them self-select for the position. It’s also an opportunity to kick off a customer experience for your new hires. You want them to fall in love with your organization and the prospect of becoming an operator. Connect them to an employee who can act as a customer service agent. This person will welcome them, help them learn about the organization and answer questions.
  • Focus on retention. You’ve made a significant investment to recruit and train your workforce. Once hired, keep them engaged with employee retention programs. Onboarding, checking in with them, providing branded apparel and tools to help them be successful—these are all important factors in helping new hires feel “bought in” to the organization. Build pride with them in their new position and new employer.



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